The commercial space race is on.
Perhaps nothing signified its arrival like this spring's successful cargo flight of the Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station that was launched by private firm SpaceX.
SpaceX, run by billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk, isn't the only firm vying to haul cargo and people into orbit since NASA relinquished its near-monopoly on U.S. space transportation by retiring the Space Shuttle program last year.
At least a dozen companies are developing spaceships to replace the shuttle's duties or to carve their own commercial pathways in space.
The U.S. government's new approach of letting private companies take over the work NASA used to do in low orbit around the Earth — and pay for part of it — has opened the final frontier to free enterprise. And many advocates of commercial space ventures foresee a new and even grandiose era of U.S. space exploration, development and travel resulting from it.
"We're making space more American. We're making space more democratic. We're making space more available, approachable and real to the average American," says James Muncy, president of the space policy consulting firm PoliSpace in Alexandria, Va.
Even NASA says the sky is no limit to what a largely unfettered U.S. space industry can achieve.
"If NASA is the only game in town … our space aspirations will always be limited by the size of NASA's budget," says Philip McAlister, director of commercial spaceflight for NASA. "When you start turning this over to the private sector, there's no limit."
But this new strategy still comes with some government assistance and say.
In the last six years, NASA has doled out about $2 billion to private companies to design and build space taxis to the Space Station. Earlier this month, NASA pledged an additional $1.1 billion to three U.S. companies — aerospace giant Boeing, Musk's SpaceX start-up and high-tech firm Sierra Nevada— to finish the work.
Right now, NASA is paying the Russians more than $60 million a person for a ride to the Space Station, money it says it would rather give to U.S. companies. NASA says it would have cost the government about twice more than what it's giving the companies to develop the new spacecraft.
The savings, the space agency says, frees it to use its resources to explore deep space, specifically Mars, the moon and asteroids.
But a crucial step for the emerging industry is to be able to survive without NASA funding.
NASA is hopeful the companies will find other customers. That ultimately will breed competition and drive down prices for everyone, the agency reasons. And once the companies have customers, they'll have a better chance at attracting more investors.
Nobody can predict how big the market will be for commercial space transportation. And as in any burgeoning industry, some businesses will succeed and some will fail.
"We don't know which will be the companies that are going to make money in space," Muncy says. "It's like 1976 and we don't know who is going to be Apple computer and who is going to be one of the five companies that dies within a few years."
Entrepreneurs in charge
Perhaps it's no surprise that many of the companies trying to carve out a niche in space are run by savvy entrepreneurs who've made fortunes in other industries.