Commercial space race gets crowded behind SpaceX

Private enterprise to free NASA to concentrate on further exploration.
By SETH BORENSTEIN Published: May 24, 2012
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A privately built space capsule that's zipping its way to the International Space Station has also launched something else: A for-profit space race.

The capsule called Dragon was due to arrive near the space station for tests early Thursday and dock on Friday with its load of supplies. Space Exploration Technologies Corp. — run by PayPal co-founder Elon Musk — was hired by NASA to deliver cargo and eventually astronauts to the orbital outpost.

And the space agency is hiring others, too.

Several firms think they can make money in space and are close enough to Musk's company to practically surf in his spaceship's rocket-fueled wake. There are now more companies looking to make money in orbit — at least eight — than major U.S. airlines still flying.

Private space companies have talked for years about ferrying goods and astronauts for NASA, but this is the first time one is actually in orbit and about to make a delivery for the space agency.

“Dragon is not the only entrant in commercial cargo,” said Jeff Greason, president of XCOR Aerospace, which specializes in the also busy suborbital marketplace. “They have competitors nipping at their heels.”

Still, Dragon's launch is “the spark that will ignite a flourishing commercial spaceflight marketplace,” said Michael Lopez-Alegria, the president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation and a former astronaut.

Hiring Musk's SpaceX and other private companies is a key part of NASA's plan to shift focus. Instead of routine flights to the space station with the now retired space shuttles, NASA is aiming farther out to places such as asteroids and Mars. After this test flight, SpaceX has a contract with NASA for a dozen delivery runs.



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