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Upstarts in space!

SpaceX
SpaceX's Falcon 1 rocket rises Sunday from its Pacific island launch pad.

Fifty years ago, NASA and the Soviets were the only players in the spaceflight game - but those days are gone forever. On its 50th birthday, America's government-funded space agency finds itself surrounded by upstarts - some who will no doubt be selling rides to the government in the years to come.

The latest upstart to join the orbital club is California-based SpaceX, the company founded six years ago by dot-com millionaire Elon Musk.

On Sunday, SpaceX's two-stage Falcon 1 rocket blasted a dummy payload into a 500-by-700-kilometer (310-by-435-miles) orbit from a Pacific Island launch pad. The partially reusable rocket is designed to deliver small payloads to orbit for about $8 million - just a fraction of the going rate for access to space.

Success hasn't come easy: Musk, who has invested more than $100 million of his own money in the venture, suffered through three wayward launches before Sunday's flawless ascent to orbit. But now that the SpaceX team has proved it can be done, potential customers are streaming in from the sidelines.

"My phone has been buzzing," Musk said Sunday.

In The Mercury News' report on the launch, Stanford Professor Bob Twiggs compared SpaceX's innovations in the launch business to Apple's innovations in the computer business back in the 1970s:

"That's what the Apple computer did. It brought down the cost to have the ability to get on there and play around with things, without having to run to somebody's mainframe computer," Twiggs told the Silicon Valley paper.

An even more apt comparison could be made to the early days of Microsoft. (And yes, Microsoft is one of the partners in the msnbc.com joint venture.) Just as Bill Gates and Paul Allen hit it big when they were chosen to supply the operating system for IBM's personal computers, Musk and his rival space entrepreneurs are hoping to hit it big by becoming launch service suppliers for NASA in the post-shuttle era.

That era is due to begin with the shuttle fleet's retirement in 2010. SpaceX is already benefiting from $278 million in NASA seed money to develop a more powerful successor to the Falcon 1, as well as a Dragon capsule capable of carrying cargo to and from the international space station.

The NASA cash is a factor behind SpaceX's profitability over the past couple of years. But the space station isn't the only game in town: Diane Murphy, SpaceX's vice president of marketing and communication, told me that plans for a pressurized experimental capsule known as Dragon Lab is attracting increasing interest from researchers.

"There'll be quite a bit of market, we think, for the Dragon Lab," she said.

Musk has been clear about his long-range goal: getting humanity off this rock and into the cosmos. He reiterated that view in a piece published by Esquire this week:

"There have only been about a half dozen genuinely important events in the four-billion-year saga of life on Earth: single-celled life, multicelled life, differentiation into plants and animals, movement of animals from water to land, and the advent of mammals and consciousness. The next big moment will be life becoming multiplanetary, an unprecedented adventure that would dramatically enhance the richness and diversity of our collective consciousness. It would also serve as a hedge against the myriad - and growing - threats to our survival. An asteroid or a supervolcano could certainly destroy us, but we also face risks the dinosaurs never saw: An engineered virus, nuclear war, inadvertent creation of a micro black hole, or some as-yet-unknown technology could spell the end of us. Sooner or later, we must expand life beyond our little blue mud ball - or go extinct."

Musk believes it's possible to establish a sustainable beachhead on another planet (most likely Mars) in less than a century. But how does SpaceX figure in that timetable? Does Musk aspire to set up another NASA?

"I'm not sure there is any existing model for what SpaceX will be," Murphy said. "We're creating our own model. ... NASA's role is to push the boundaries, to 'go where no one has gone before.' But when you get into production, that can be in the private sector. We can make that into a business."

In the final section of his book "Rocketeers," Michael Belfiore sketches out a future in which NASA astronauts are the ones stuck in low Earth orbit, while it's the privately backed ventures that go beyond orbit to the moon and Mars. Belfiore's vision includes quite a bit of "New Space" literary license - but there's ample evidence that the private sector is getting in on space functions traditionally taken on by government. Here are some examples:

  • For decades, NASA has flown "Vomit Comet" planes to conduct scientific research and astronaut training in zero-gravity conditions, but just last month the space agency started using Zero Gravity Corp.'s weightless flights for flying experiments.
  • NASA Administrator Michael Griffin has long talked about making commercial deals for flying experiments - as well as experimenters - aboard yet-to-be-built suborbital spaceships. Last week, NASA issued a fresh request for information about how private vendors could help with a "possible new program to fly government-sponsored payloads and/or researchers on commercial suborbital systems." A formal solicitation for flight services could come next year.
  • With backing from British billionaire Richard Branson, Virgin Galactic has been working with Scaled Composites to create a fleet of suborbital spaceships. SpaceShipTwo's carrier plane was rolled out this summer, and flight testing will likely begin next year. This week, Virgin Galactic announced that it's been talking with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration about helping the government agency with suborbital climate-change research.
  • Nevada-based Bigelow Aerospace already has a couple of inflatable space modules in orbit, thanks to Russian launches in 2006 and 2007. Over the past several months, Bigelow has been putting the pieces into place for a Sundancer mini-space station that could host paying visitors. The passengers could be lofted into orbit on a SpaceX Falcon 9, or any other rocket that's inexpensive and reliable enough to fit Bigelow's business model. The company's billionaire backer, Robert Bigelow, passed along his congratulations to SpaceX this week: "This launch may have been one small step for SpaceX, but it's a giant leap for the entrepreneurial space industry," Bigelow said. How far might Bigelow go? Would you believe the moon?

We haven't even talked about the space programs being advanced by other countries - including China (which just completed a successful spacewalk mission), Europe (which just completed a successful space station resupply mission) and India (which is preparing for its first moonshot this month).

What place will NASA (and its "Odd Couple" partners in the Russian Space Agency) occupy in the expanding space landscape? Visit NASA's 50th-anniversary Web site, review what NASA's Griffin said about the next 50 years back in July, check out this vision of NASA in the year 2058 from space commentator Jim Banke - and, as always, feel free to weigh in with your comments below.

Update for 9 p.m. ET Oct. 2: I asked SpaceX's Diane Murphy to forward some rambling questions to Elon Musk, and his reply has just come back. Here's the exchange, with my question edited so that it's a little more coherent:

Q: The vision for SpaceX in the near term seems pretty clear to me: Enter the market with an affordable means of access to space, and sell those launch services (and eventually cargo/crew transport services) to NASA and the military, and to commercial space companies.

The vision for the long term is turning humanity into a multiplanet species.

I'm trying to think about the middle term: How you see SpaceX facilitating the outward push? Would the company continue to be a service supplier, or would it become a mission leader? Would SpaceX be the one who supplies the ships for adventurers and governments, or would it become the analog to the Hudson's Bay Company?

A: The right answer is that I don't know what the run strategy is five years from now.  There are too many uncertainties.

For the next five years, we are going to focus on making Falcon 1 super-reliable, getting Falcon 9, Falcon 9 Heavy and Dragon (cargo and crew) to orbit and making them super-reliable.  We're also going to focus on achieving cost-effective reusability.  If we are able to do that with Falcon 9, which is far from certain, it will be one of the most important developments in the history of space.  Cost-effective reusability is absolutely fundamental to making life multiplanetary.

If oceangoing ships hadn't been reusable, it would have been impossible to colonize the new world.

Beyond that, I only have a rough idea.  We'd love to help NASA get back to the moon and have proposed a low-cost cargo lander, which could also be a Mars lander.  It would be great to do a Mars sample return.  Etc..."