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If the Falcon 1 launch works as expected, the company plans to begin test firings of a much bigger craft, the Falcon 9, as early as this November. Using nine rocket motors identical to the single motor in Falcon 1, the huge rocket could deliver payloads and humans to the International Space Station (ISS), or anywhere else in low Earth orbit. The tests slated for this fall would be static firings – engine tests while strapped to the launch pad – but after a series of tests next year, actual commercial flights could begin in 2008, Musk said.

Finally, Virgin Galactic, a partnership between Sir Richard Branson and Burt Rutan – founder of Scaled Composites, whose SpaceShipOne won the X Prize in 2004 – is getting close to test flights of a suborbital tourist spaceplane (although Rutan never announces a schedule for his test flights until they happen).

Still more rockets may be soaring soon under a NASA project called COTS, for Commercial Orbital Transportation Services, which represents “really a sea-change for NASA,” says Musk of SpaceX. Several companies, including SpaceX, have been competing under COTS for contracts to develop alternative ways to get astronauts to the ISS once the space shuttle is retired (see “NASA’s Bold Plan for Private Spaceflight”).

While this may be a record year for liftoffs by independent rocket-powered vehicles, it’s just the start, according to X Prize Foundation spokesman Ian Murphy. “I think you’re going to see a new record every year” for private space launches, he predicts.

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