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How to Get a Piece of the Private Space Race

In February another private venture, XCOR Aerospace, raised $5 million from investors to finish developing its Lynx family of rocket-propelled planes (after securing $10 million in NASA funding for the program in 2011), which will be able to fly people into suborbital space or micro-satellites into low earth orbit. By offering tickets to space tourists for $95,000 a pop, XCOR undercuts Virgin's price by more than 50%, but the company is at least equally interested in the potential revenue from selling its planes and licensing its technology to others.

Namely the company's effort to produce reusable, non-toxic propulsion systems has gotten the attention of partners in government as well as the private sector, with Boeing (BA) and Lockheed Martin (LMT) buying into XCOR's rocket engine design through a partnership with the two companies' joint aerospace venture, United Launch Alliance.

But where Branson leads the effort to get rich people into space and companies like XCOR have received some support from NASA and the federal government, entrepreneur Elon Musk's SpaceX is the leader so far in the positioning for lucrative government contracts to take over the job of launching supplies and humans to the International Space Station. The company was one of three to be awarded funds and expertise through NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) initiative to promote private-sector efforts to go to space, and it has already secured contracts from NASA and foreign clients for 38 launches.

The company already put a satellite into orbit using its Falcon rocket, and in 2010 SpaceX took the next small step in the manned spaceflight initiative, by launching and returning its Dragon capsule, capable of shuttling seven people or equivalent cargo to space. The company appeared to be right on schedule to blast off as planned on May 7 with its first trip using the Falcon rocket and Dragon spacecraft, but backtracked on Wednesday, saying that the launch is likely to be delayed as SpaceX works through software assurance process issues with NASA.

The demand for the human transport capability will be essential for SpaceX, as it is definitively in the lead in providing for a return to manned spaceflight, and at a considerable cost savings that will make it attractive to NASA and foreign space programs as well. American astronauts have been hitching rides on Russian Soyuz rockets since the end of the shuttle program in 2011, costing $62 million each time. With the Dragon vehicles, SpaceX projects a per-astronaut cost closer to $20 million.

With its first-in-line status for taking over several official space science duties from the government, Musk has said that he sees a likely IPO for SpaceX next year.

While it's clear that the startup community sees a big upside in space, some private companies have been launching things into space for years, providing rocket boosters, launch vehicles, satellites, and guidance systems to NASA and the private sector. Alliant Technosystems (ATK) is one of the largest, with $4.8 billion in revenue in 2011, up every year for the past 10 years. The company spun off from defense and aerospace giant Honeywell (HON) in 1990 and has been providing rocket boosters and satellite parts with a good track record ever since, though its focus has decidedly shifted to the defense part of its business.

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