Tycoons such as Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Virgin Group’s Richard Branson own companies that are competing to carry cargo and people — including tourists — into space. In the past companies have built space equipment and conducted space flights under NASA contracts. But experts say firms today have more flexibility to strike out on their own. NASA continues to manage U.S. participation in the international space program and plans future missions, including sending humans to Mars. Lockheed Martin Corp. recently announced a “technology road map” for providing equipment for NASA’s Mars program. NASA and scientific institutions continue to conduct most research done with telescopes, unmanned satellites and other instruments, which made several important space-related discoveries over the last year.
|SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket makes its first successful landing on a ship in April after launching from Cape Canaveral, Fla. (Getty Images/NASA)|
The United States has entered another space race — not like the Cold War version with the former Soviet Union, but among wealthy entrepreneurs such as Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and former PayPal and current Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk. The competition is occurring as private firms are playing an increasing role in moving cargo — and someday humans, the firms hope — into space. Meanwhile, exploration with telescopes, unmanned probes and other instruments remains largely the purview of NASA and scientific institutions.
Several companies — including Musk’s SpaceX — contract with NASA to carry cargo to the International Space Station and with government agencies and private firms to launch satellites. In addition, SpaceX and the Boeing Co. each could begin taking astronauts to the station next year. But Bezos, Musk and Virgin Group founder Richard Branson also are working on their own space-travel enterprises, including ferrying tourists into space, eventually to Mars, and providing transportation for scientific missions.