While NASA seems to be flying in orbital circles, with manned flight still stuck on the space shuttle, the private sector has been dumping millions into its own space ventures.
"We're trying to move the industry to a point where people believe what we say," said Jeff Greason, a former Intel computer genius who now runs XCOR, one of a half dozen companies in the Mojave desert of California trying to get ordinary citizens into space.
Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com has already tested a vertical takeoff and landing craft, which may someday carry people just beyond the atmosphere.
Hotel entrepreneur Robert Bigelow already has a couple of unmanned craft in orbit.
Bigelow is offering $50 million to any American venture that can fly a fully loaded five-passenger craft into orbit by 2010.
The most visible effort has been Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic, already selling tickets for $200,000. But test flights won't happen for 18 months, pushed back after a fatal explosion at the Mojave company building his spacecraft: Scaled Composites, run by X Prize-winning Burt Rutan. Three men died in a fuel flow test in July. It hit the community here hard, but it did not stop the inflow of investor money.
Now, even bigger things are planned. Google is using some of its profit to encourage innovation to get to the moon as "Earth's offshore island." It is putting up a $30 million Lunar X prize, and most of the money will go to the first private group which can launch, land, and operate a robotic rover on the Moon's surface.
Google calls it "Moon 2.0," and project manager Dylan Casey says the hope is that the Moon can be explored for useful elements, new technologies will be created in going there, young people will be inspired to study science and technology, and that contestants will use Google tools.
"Since we announced the prize," says Casey, "we have had over 250 teams that have been interested in trying to participate, and we actually received nine letters of intent."
Back in Mojave, Rutan's company became wholly owned by Northrop Grumman in August, and other private ventures are waiting to see if ownership by a traditional, large aerospace company is a good thing or not. Rutan says he wants to build 50 spacecraft, and not just for Branson. He has reportedly been talking to an unnamed established airline.
XCOR's Greason continues to get funding in the shadow of the big players, in part by not overpromising. He says the industry has not taken off in the last 30 years because too many people "were promising the Moon next Tuesday, literally." He says it's hard to tell who will succeed, and who will never get off the launchpad.
But, to Greason, it's not about being first. It's about being able to last. For those investors who tell him they fear it's already "too late to get in," he points to the Wright Brothers. Yeah, they were first, but nobody's flying airplanes made by the Wright Aircraft Company.