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How The Private Sector Revolutionized The Space Race In A Few Short Years


Astronaut with For Sale sign

Before 2004, the only people who could have dreamed of entering space were astronauts who had trained for years before being afforded the privelege.

But all that changed when George Bush announced his Vision for Space Exploration, which encouraged space exploration and called for the completion of the International Space Station.

President Barack Obama further encouraged private space exploration when he retired the U.S. Space Shuttle program last year, which means that NASA now has to rely on private companies to send astronauts into space.

So now the space race is on.

At least a dozen private companies have created their own Suborbital Reusable Vehicles (SRVs)—private and reusable space ships that can carry humans or cargo into space—and are competing to haul cargo and people into space.

"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," James Muncy, president of the space policy consulting firm PoliSpace in Alexandria, Va, told USA Today.

These SRVs are already transporting cargo to the International Space Station. The next step is carrying and transporting humans. And people who want to visit space will have the opportunity in the near future—as long as they're prepared to pay for it.

According to a report from Space Florida, six firms are trying to build suborbital vehicles that will transport humans into space. Aspiring space explorers may soon be able to book tickets on one of the following space airlines: UP Aerospace; Armadillo Aerospace; Masten Space Systems; XCOR Aerospace; Blue Origin, backed by Amazon's Jeff Bezos; and the biggest and best-known carrier, Virgin Galactic; among others.

Although seats on these flights can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, it's clear that the prices are getting lower and soon may actually be affordable. XCOR Aerospace is offering space flights on their vehicles for just $95,000 per person; they're scheduled to start space flights by 2013.

Virgin Galactic SpaceshipTwoAt the Farnborough International Air Show in July, Sir Richard Branson announced that he'll be on board Virgin Galactic's first commercial space tourism flight, which will take place sometime next year. He said that his two adult children will accompany him on the flight, along with three other passengers plus two pilots.

After blasting off from a spaceport in New Mexico, passengers aboard Virgin Galactic's Spaceship Two (SS2) aircraft will travel 62 miles above the Earth. The journey into space is scheduled to take about two and a half hours, with five minutes of weightlessness. (SS2 has already completed several successful test flights.)

Presumably, if all goes well with the initial launch, Virgin Galactic will make this a regular spaceflight. The company said that over 530 passengers have already signed up for the journey, at the cost of $200,000 per person per flight. Besides Branson, some famous clients will undertake the journey, including Stephen Hawking and Ashton Kutcher, who was reportedly the 500th passenger to sign up for the flight.

Sir Richard Branson, Virgin Galactic"Most people on Earth would love the chance to become astronauts if they could afford it, so it's up to us to try to make sure it's affordable," Sir Richard Branson told Business Insider's Aly Weisman in an exclusive interview. "Initially $200,000 is not going to enable the average joe to go in, but we have about 500 people signed up to go into space so far. I think they will be the pioneers and in time the price will come down."

Although Virgin Galactic has already gained a toehold on commercial space travel, it's not the only company that's flying into space. They're competing against several other companies which offer similar suborbital flights. And that means that the space travel frontier is wide open for business.

"We don't know which will be the companies that are going to make money in space," Muncy told USA Today. "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."

Regardless of which companies fail and which companies succeed, one thing is certain: space travel has the potential to be huge. Space tourism could generate as much as $1.6 billion in revenue in the next decade with multiple launches per day, according to a report from Space Florida. The same report also forecasted that the demand for seats and cargo space aboard these SRVs will grow significantly over the next decade, from 370 seats/cargo equivalents to 533 in just ten years. And of course, as the price drops, the demand for space tourism will increase.

"I think in your lifetime, space travel could be nearly as commonplace as, say, traveling to another continent is," Branson told Business Insider's Weisman. "I'm sure that your children will definitely be able to think: I'd love to become an astronaut, maybe I'll go up next weekend. That will enable us to then push space travel forward."

Watch the video below to hear Branson talk about why he thinks space travel is the world's next major innovation.

Tour Spaceport America: the world's first purpose-built spaceport >

Read more about how Commercial Spaceflight Is Getting Really Cheap, Really Fast >

See our list of Game Changers: 30 Innovations That Will Change The World >

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