While NASA shuttered its space shuttle program last year, the private sector has proved more than eager to fill the void of spaceflight -- with the backing of some financial heavy hitters.
SpaceX, founded by former PayPal co-founder Elon Musk, became the first company to launch a privately built spacecraft into orbit and return it safely to Earth in 2010. The company has a $1.6 billion contract with NASA to provide cargo missions to the International Space Station using its Dragon spacecraft. Virginia-based Orbital Sciences Corp. has a similar $1.9 billion deal with NASA.
Then there is Virgin Galactic -- part of Richard Branson's Virgin Group -- which has started to sell $200,000 tickets to ride its SpaceShipTwo suborbital space plane. The company has yet to launch any passengers but expects to do so in the next few years.
Some hope the new infusion of private sector innovation and money could bring a level of excitement back to space exploration not seen in decades.
The future of space exploration will be part of The Atlantic's Big Science Summit, which will be held in San Jose on Oct. 30. The panel, "Mapping New Frontiers in Space: From Exploration to Commercial Ventures," will feature speakers Fiona Harrison, Cal Tech astrophysicist and principal investigator for NASA's NuStar Mission; Naveen Jain, co-founder and chairman of Moon Express and founder of inome and InfoSpace; and Will Pomerantz, president for special projects at Virgin Galactic.
"The positive thing that I see about commercialization is that it's bringing back a level of excitement that the space program hasn't had in a very long time," said Paul Kostek, president of the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers' Aerospace & Electronics Systems Society, in a recent interview with Space.com. "Take SpaceX for example, this is not really a garage operation -- there's a lot of money involved."
Kostek added that such excitement of a new space age could sway more students to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) studies.
"Once SpaceX's Dragon missions start going, and once Richard Branson's group starts doing actual flights, these types of things will bring people into the STEM field," he said.
In the coming years, NASA is expected to look increasingly to the private sector to taxi astronauts and cargo into space -- with the agency becoming more of a regulatory body, handing out billions of dollars in contracts, as well as funding startups.