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Greatest date in space

— Today marks two crowning achievements of the space program: the 37th anniversary of the first moon landing, and the 30th anniversary of America's first successful landing on Mars. Where will the next such triumphs come from? For the next decade or so, the most interesting ventures to watch might not be at NASA, but among the emerging cadre of space entrepreneurs here in Las Vegas, where I'm attending the NewSpace 2006 conference.

First, let's celebrate the historical angles: Transterrestrial Musing's Rand Simberg and others have long believed that Apollo 11's landing on July 20, 1969, was so momentous that the day should be observed as a spiritual holiday called Evoloterra. Even if you're not ready for a Space Age seder, the date is worth marking as the first time humans ever set foot on a celestial body beyond Earth.

Check out this reminiscence by NBC News' Jay Barbree, written for the 35th anniversary. We also have a must-see series of audio slideshows on "the Voyage of the Millennium," narrated by astrophotographer Roger Ressmeyer. You'll probably see some images from the space effort's glory days that you've never seen before. To take it all in, click on over to this gallery archive and follow the links for each of the three chapters.

NASA has a wealth of material about Apollo 11, of course, and you can find your way to much of it by visiting this page keyed to the 35th anniversary. This panorama from Panoramas.Dk gives you a sense of really being there - and speaking of that, if the 3-D film "Magnificent Desolation" is playing at an Imax screen near you, go see it.

NASA is making a big deal over the 1976 Viking landings on Mars this year because of the Big 3-0. In addition to a commemorative video and a podcast, you can visit the Viking Web page and learn much, much more about the significance of the achievement.

Many of the issues that shape Mars exploration today - getting on-the-ground data from the Red Planet, asking questions about ancient or extant life, even sending twin missions to reduce the risk of failure - trace their roots to Viking. Our historical Mars slideshow includes some of the iconic images from Viking, including the "Face on Mars." To see it, go to this gallery page and click on "Mars' Greatest Hits."

And now, back to the future: Discovery's latest flight put NASA back on track for exploration, to be sure, but for the next four to eight years, the space agency will be dealing with finishing the international space station and developing the replacement for the space shuttle. If we're lucky, humans will return to the moon in time for the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11.

NASA's next unprecedented triumphs will be establishing the first permanent moonbase and moving on to leave the first human footprints on Mars. The only other contender would be the discovery of unmistakable signs of past or present Martian life by future robotic probes. Am I wrong about that?

But there's another potential source of excitement, involving private-sector spaceflight. The hullabaloo over SpaceShipOne illustrated that nongovernmental ventures could capture the public's imagination, even though some might feel a slight sense of "been there, done that." Perhaps it's because SpaceShipOne's flights - like Bigelow Aerospace's Genesis 1 launch and high-flying passenger trips to the space station (and someday around the moon?) - reawaken that '60s sense that someday regular folks will find a place on the final frontier. Also, the fact that millions or perhaps billions of dollars are at stake doesn't hurt.

That's what this week's NewSpace 2006 meeting, sponsored by the Space Frontier Foundation, is all about. We'll be hearing from billionaire Robert Bigelow and others who are taking an entrepreneurial approach to space exploration and exploitation. And along the way, I'll be receiving an award for space journalism as well.

Over the next few days, I'll keep you posted on the goings-on - depending on time and bandwidth, of course. If there's anything in particular you want me to check into, send along a comment and I'll try to follow up.