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How to Get a Piece of the Private Space Race

Orbital Sciences (ORB), another established player in the space race, has generated plenty of buzz about its its Antares rocket, a project funded at least in part by NASA's COTS program, which along with the 2010 acquisition of General Dynamics' (GD) satellite division, puts the company at the head of the game to grow its share of the communications satellite business.

Despite all the growth in the private space race though, some notable failures like Rocketplane Kistler give reason for pause. The company showed initial promise with its plan to develop a reusable launch vehicle to replace NASA's single-use rocket boosters that launched the space shuttle into orbit. The company even got NASA funding through its COTS program in 2006 to finance the project, but an inability to raise additional funds led to NASA abandoning the program in 2007, and the company declared bankruptcy in 2010.

That said, for investors with the strong financial backing needed to sustain such hi-technology ventures, there is a huge upside to investing in space.

And while space tourism and satellite launches will be affordable only to governments and extremely high-net-worth individuals for the foreseeable future, the spinoff innovations that come from pursuing spaceflight are undeniable. Bigelow Aerospace, founded in 1999 by American real estate developer Robert Bigelow, has focused its efforts on developing low-cost modular habitats for an eventual lunar colony or space stations. The company has put two of its habitats in orbit and secured exclusive contracts with NASA to develop these for a planned return to the moon.

Since these habitats are fully self-contained and cut off from the environment outside, the company will not have to wait until humans set up shop on the dark side of the moon to reap the rewards. Sanitation systems, air recycling and sustainable energy generation are just a few characteristics of a space habitat that will reap rewards back home on earth, offering the potential to license technology to players in other industries.

Other companies that focus on improving launch vehicles and rocket engines should lead to new ways to incorporate hybrid fuel sources, potentially changing the nature of air travel in general. Solar panels outfitted on space capsules may bring up the efficiency and bring down the costs of an industry that has struggled to take off here on Earth.

Space travel began in the 1960s and took decades to reach some level of normalcy. With the high price tags involved, the barriers to entry for private ventures were generally impossible to overcome, except for the biggest players. But while NASA's closing the doors of the space shuttle program meant the end of exploration for some, the reality is much brighter than that. Private space companies are betting on the future in a big way, and this time investors, not taxpayers, will drive the innovations.

-- Written by Greg Emerson in New York

>To follow the writer on Twitter, go to @emersongreg.

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