In the absence of NASA's Space Shuttle Program, private companies are left to fill the black hole of space exploration. Now, 50 years after John Glenn orbited the Earth, some very different kinds of explorers are leading the way.
Richard Branson's space line is prepping its SpaceShipTwo for commercial passengers, and private citizens are lining up to reserve their seats at $200,000 a pop.
Mission: Make space accessible. Says CEO George Whitesides, "We want to enable people all over the world to experience what only about 500 people have seen: Earth from space and the surrounding universe."
2. Xcor Aerospace
NASA has chosen Xcor's Lynx rocket to provide suborbital flight services for scientific missions. A flight-test program will launch in 2012.
Mission: Fuel new research. "Society needs citizens to believe we can expand opportunities," says CEO Jeff Greason. "Space transport can be a moneymaker."
3. Armadillo Aerospace
A leading developer of reusable rocket-powered launch vehicles, Armadillo focuses on vertical liftoff and landing.
Mission: Find new real estate. "We must expand beyond our birth planet," says Neil Milburn, VP of program management. "Asteroids or a virus could wipe out life on Earth."
The first privately funded company to launch, orbit, and recover a spacecraft, SpaceX has inked a $1.6 billion deal with NASA to carry out 12 resupply missions to the International Space Station.
Mission: Add ease. "We must create tech that has a positive effect on space access," says Tom Mueller, VP of propulsion.
The aviation giant (together with NASA) is building a craft to carry astronauts to the International Space Station in 2015.
Mission: Keep the U.S. in the game. "It would be unfortunate to cede leadership to others, then look longingly at their accomplishments," says space exploration VP John Elbon.
A version of this article appeared in the February 2012 issue of Fast Company magazine.