I recently read a article about the last flight of the space shuttle Discovery. It points out that the USA is starting to privatize space, and I thought I would expand on that.
There are several companies currently working to get to space, either going a more traditional route of strapping a rocket to the bottom of a payload and pushing the ignition button, or by more unorthodox methods, such as launching a rocket from a mothership.
In the first category is SpaceX. They have been building rockets 2002, got a rocket, Falcon 1,successfully into orbit 2008, although admittedly after several tries, and delivered their first satellite into orbit in 2009. They are currently working on the Falcon 9, which is a larger rocket capable of carrying heavier loads, and even manned missions to the International Space Station. The Falcon 9 missions will include a capsule called Dragon, which is quite similar to the capsules used before the shuttle, and currently by the Russians. It is capable of carrying either cargo or people. All of their rockets are reusable, and the planned Falcon X and Falcon XX will be even more capable.
Another company working on the same kind of principle is ArianeSpace, that has been around for several decades now, and have been launching commercial satellites into space from French Guiana, a country located only 4 degrees north of the equator, making it much easier to reach geostationary orbit.
Scaled Composites, who was bought by Virgin Galactic, is the first private company that reached space, and won the Ansari X-Prize. The X-Prize was conceived as a competition to give $10 million to the first company who could reach space twice within two weeks, without government intervention. SpaceShipOne did that October 4, 2004. The unorthodox method they achieved this was by flying the space ship attached to a specially designed place, called White Knight, to a altitude of 15km (50,000 feet), from where SpaceShipOne wass released, the rocket motor is ignited, and away they went. They went to the altitude of 100km, the generally accepted point where space starts. When they came down, they changed the configuration of the ship’s wings (is it still a ship if it has wings?), that allows them to descend much slower into the atmosphere without all the heat and stress that normally is associated with reentry. They are currently working on SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo, the combination of which they are calling VSS Enterprise :D, bigger, more capable versions that will be able to send people into sub orbital flights. They are currently taking bookings at $200,000, and looks like the soonest and cheapest way to get into space without spending at least 20 times as much.
XCOR Aerospace and Rocket Ship Tours are a similar venture, but they differ slightly in that they have a craft that looks a lot like the Shuttle, but is much lighter and smaller, which will take off from a airfield, go to the 100km limit, and then glide back down. Check out the video.
Another of the interesting ones is Armadillo Aerospace, a company created by John Carmack, the creator of the Doom PC games. They are working on a rocket that will be able to launch, and then land again on the rocket output of the rocket. To see what I mean, see this video:
This idea has been around a long time, but has always been impractical, until now that we have the computing power to control the rocket direction very quickly.
Beyond sub orbital and low earth orbit, the next step for private companies, as it was in the Space Race, is the moon. Google and the X-Prize foundation launched the Google Lunar X Prize competition. The goal of the competition is to launch and land a lunar rover on the moon. The prize money this time around is $30 million. There are 29 companies competing, some of them university teams.
What quite a few of these companies have in common is that they are funded and created by people who made their money in the internet age, and are geeks. They grew up with modern science fiction, Star Trek, Star Wars, BSG, and other space based movies and series. The vision that good science fiction provides us, gives us the inspiration to do the work to go beyond our little blue planet.