Private Space Race Heats Up With SpaceX Dragon Flight

SpaceX’s historic demonstration mission to the International Space Station is grabbing most of the headlines these days, but other private spaceflight companies are hatching big plans, too.

SpaceX’s unmanned Dragon capsule docked with the huge orbiting lab Friday (May 25), becoming the first commercial vehicle ever to do so. Astronauts are currently unpacking Dragon’s 1,014 pounds (460 kilograms) of cargo and loading it up with used station gear before the capsule heads back down to Earth on Thursday (May 31).

SpaceX may be leading the way, but a handful of other commercial aerospace firms have their eyes on the skies, too. Here’s a brief rundown of some of the most prominent private spaceflight companies and what they’re shooting for, in both the orbital and suborbital realms.

The California-based SpaceX already holds a $1.6 billion NASA contract to make 12 robotic supply runs to the space station, the first of which could launch in September if everything goes well with the rest of Dragon’s test flight. [SpaceX's Dragon Arrives at Space Station (Pictures)]

SpaceX is upgrading Dragon to carry crew, with some funding help from NASA’s Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program. The space agency wants at least two private American vehicles to be ready to transport astronauts to the space station by 2017, to fill the void left when the space shuttle fleet retired last year.

The final shuttle mission, Atlantis’ STS-135 flight in July, delivered to the station an American flag that had flown on the maiden shuttle flight in 1981. The first private spaceship to carry astronauts to the station captures that flag, and SpaceX may get the prize; company founder and CEO Elon Musk has said a crew-carrying Dragon could be operational within the next three years or so.

But the company’s dreams don’t end in low-Earth orbit. Musk started the company in 2002 primarily to help make humanity a multiplanet species, so Dragon may be flying astronauts to Mars someday.

Orbital Sciences Corp., based in Dulles, Va., inked a $1.9 billion deal with NASA to make eight unmanned cargo flights to the space station using its Cygnus vehicle and Antares rocket. The company is aiming to launch a demonstration mission to the orbiting lab this November or December.

Unlike Dragon, Cygnus is a cargo-only vehicle; Orbital is not working on a crewed version.

The Colorado-based Sierra Nevada Corp. is developing a small space plane called the Dream Chaser, which is designed to carry seven astronauts to and from low-Earth orbit. The spacecraft will launch vertically atop a rocket but land on a runway like an airplane.

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