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When Las Vegas hotel magnate Robert Bigelow launched a small prototype of an inflatable private space-­station module from a Russian launchpad in July, it was only the first in an expected flurry of private launches in 2006. Progress in small, reusable rockets will make this a watershed year for private launches, perhaps ushering in an era of inexpensive space travel. “We have new items on the real road to practical spaceflight–private market development–popping up,” says Boston-based aerospace consultant Charles Lurio.

The loudest roars might be heard in October in New Mexico, at the X Prize Cup, a showcase for new rocket technology and a ­follow­-up to the 2004 awarding of the $10 million X Prize for back-to-back private manned launches that reached suborbital altitudes and returned safely. That prize went to SpaceShipOne, made by Scaled Composites of Mojave, CA.

The X Prize Cup will feature a new challenge: a NASA-sponsored contest that includes a $2.5 million prize for demonstrating a rocket’s ability to take off and land vertically and move sideways while aloft. Four teams have registered for the contest, which is aimed at developing new spacecraft that could evolve into cheap and rugged moon-landing vehicles. Two of the expected competitors are Armadillo Aerospace of Mesquite, TX, and Masten Space Systems of Mojave, CA.

And Space Exploration, or SpaceX, founded by PayPal cofounder Elon Musk, expects to try again in November or December to launch its Falcon 1 rocket from the Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific Ocean, after an attempt earlier this year failed. The company seeks a successful launch and landing in the Pacific.

SpaceX is mounting the only concerted effort to develop rockets that could actually put satellites or astronauts into orbit in the near term. To that end, the company plans to begin test firings of a much bigger craft, the Falcon 9, perhaps in January or February. Using nine rocket motors identical to the single motor in Falcon 1, the huge rocket could deliver payloads and people to the International Space Station (ISS) or anywhere else in low Earth orbit. Commercial flights–delivering satellites into orbit–could begin in the next few years, Musk says.

Finally, the Spaceship Company, a partnership between Virgin Galactic’s Sir Richard Branson and Scaled Composites founder Burt Rutan, is expected to launch its suborbital tourist spaceplane by 2008.

Still more rockets may be soaring soon under a NASA project called Commercial Orbital Transportation Services, which is “really a sea change for NASA,” says Musk. Companies are competing under COTS for contracts to develop alternative ways to get astronauts to the ISS once the space-shuttle program comes to an end in 2010.

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