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A New Space Age Beckons—If Customers Can Be Found

February 22, 2011

For decades, national space agencies like NASA held an iron grip on space travel. But in the last few years their budgets have been constrained while the private sector has made tremendous technical progress. The result is the dawn of a new space industry. Where once America and Russia raced to the moon, now the competition is between entrepreneurs vying for business.

Much of that technical progress is driven by American entrepreneurs who made their fortunes outside aerospace. They funded startups that, to the surprise of many observers, started building actual rockets and spacecraft with budgets ranging from the tens to the hundreds of millions of dollars. Some, such as SpaceX and ­Bigelow Aerospace, have already begun testing hardware in orbit. Meanwhile, NASA has spent billions in failed attempts to replace the 30-year-old shuttle.

However, NASA deserves credit for finally shucking its indifference—and occasional hostility—to private space ventures and establishing its Commercial Crew and Cargo Program in 2006. Through development grants and contracts for trips to supply the International Space Station, the program has given the new space industry both money and credibility, helping it grow beyond the dreams of a few mavericks (see “Entrepreneurs Challenge Aerospace Giants). In return, NASA gets a chance to refocus its efforts on bold exploration.

The result has been a situation similar to the microcomputer revolution of the 1970s and 1980s or the dot-com boom of the 1990s: a diverse collection of systems are competing in a new, fast-growing market. Such explosions of innovation are typically followed by extinctions, but a handful of survivors, like Apple and Microsoft or Amazon and Google, prove truly transformative.

So, too, it may be with the current crop of space entrepreneurs as they seek customers beyond NASA supply contracts and the current trickle of super-rich tourists (see “Will Customers Boldly Go?).

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