"The whole idea of being versatile is key to any business," he says. "NASA is not the entire program and eventually will not be the majority, but it's a way to kick-start the program."
'A huge upside'
Michael Lopez-Alegria, president of trade group Commercial Spaceflight Federation, says there are many ways for the companies to make money without NASA. "I think there's a huge upside to the market," he says.
They can launch satellites into the Earth's orbit, for instance.
Virgin Galactic in July announced it would develop a satellite launcher called LauncherOne to help finance its commercial space program. "We think there's a real opportunity there," Whitesides says.
Some also see opportunity in hooking up with Las Vegas-based Bigelow Aerospace, which has already launched two expandable space stations. Robert Bigelow, owner of hospitality chain Budget Suites of America, is financing the effort.
SpaceX in May announced it had agreed to transport people to Bigelow's space habitats, which are flexible and can be configured for various uses. Bigelow is also working with Boeing. The idea is to give governments, corporations and scientists an alternative to doing research at the Space Station.
Venture capitalists, investment bankers and other investors are starting to notice the potential, says Richard David, co-founder of NewSpace Global, which tracks the top 100 companies involved in the industry, which is dubbed New Space.
"More and more companies are getting private funding and not having to rely exclusively or predominately on NASA," he says. "If they don't stop that reliance, then they position themselves for some serious challenges."
Advocates of commercial spaceflight have been waiting for the nascent industry's "Netscape moment." That refers to the August 1995 initial public offering of stock in Netscape, which created the then-popular Web browser. That triggered an avalanche of IPOs, then the dot-com boom.
Could the commercial space industry be on the verge of a similar moment?
"I think we're at the beginning of a really big shift," says David Livingston, host of popular Internet radio program The Space Show. "Space has not had their Netscape moment. That hasn't happened yet. But many people think that if there's to be a Netscape moment, we're getting closer."