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How to Get a Piece of the Private Space Race

Stocks in this article: VMED ORB NOC ATK TSLA

NEW YORK ( MainStreet) -- Necessity is and has always been the mother of invention, and as the space community laments the Obama administration's decision to let the space shuttle program end without a replacement to put people in orbit or visit the International Space Station, the private sector has stepped up with a vengeance to fill the void.

Shuttle Enterprise arrived in New York City last Friday, traveling atop a 747 jet to its final resting place at Manhattan's Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum. Shuttle Discovery became part of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum collection in Washington, D.C. the week before that, and shuttles Endeavour and Atlantis will also be heading to retirement soon: Endeavour to the California Science Center in Los Angeles.

Entrepreneurs and investors see big money in space, though, and programs launched by the likes of Virgin Media's (VMED) Richard Branson or PayPal (EBAY) and Tesla Motors (TSLA) founder Elon Musk are on the cusp of taking over the complex business of putting satellites and rich people into orbit, and ferrying science experiments to the International Space Station.

Private ventures like the one led by Virgin's Richard Branson and Tesla Motors' Elon Musk are leading a new space race.

Virgin Galactic, as Branson's venture is known, is already taking $20,000 deposits for the $200,000 tickets for space tourists to pop out of the Earth's atmosphere, which it anticipates being able to fulfill early in 2013. CEO George Whitesides reported that the company had accumulated deposits of almost $60 million as of late 2011, suggesting that interest is strong among those who can afford it.

The group has logged successful flights of its launch system, a catamaran-style plane known as WhiteKnightTwo that takes the actual space vehicle known as SpaceShipTwo into the upper atmosphere for a running start at reaching the blackness of space, both developed by a partnership with Scaled Composites, a division of defense and aerospace giant Northrop Grumman (NOC), maker of the B-2 stealth bomber.

When the pool of billionaire passengers trails off, or if the company isn't able to bring the cost down far enough to make space accessible to lower rungs of the 1%, Virgin even foresees a future where sub-orbital flights are used simply for travel purposes. Where the Concorde turned a seven-and-a-half hour flight from New York to London into a three hour affair, Virgin's suborbital flights could do it in an hour.

While there are no official plans to develop that capability yet, construction has begun on New Mexico's Spaceport America, which will serve as a headquarters for Virgin's launches, and neighboring Colorado has applied for permission to build its own spaceport this year to accommodate the anticipated burst of interest in boldly going where only a few hundred men and women have gone before.

And Virgin will have some competition in snatching up those dollars.

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