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Right now, most of the progress toward space settlement is being accomplished in the private sector. Last December, Elon Musk’s SpaceX completed a successful test flight of a reusable capsule capable of carrying up to seven people, and the company has a contract with NASA to shuttle cargo to the International Space station at per-pound costs far below the current rate. Virgin Galactic, Space Adventures and other companies have begun offering flights into low Earth orbit and brief stays in space stations, and Bigelow Aerospace has plans to launch an inflatable “space hotel” by 2015.

Rick Tumlinson, the co-founder of the Space Frontier Foundation, a growing group of entrepreneurs who hope to use private enterprise to succeed where they believe a risk-averse and directionless NASA has failed, maintains that we will settle the new frontier only when there is a compelling profit motive for it. He lists space tourism, extraterrestrial mining, and the beaming of solar energy from space back down to Earth as the best financial reasons to leave the planet. “We achieve permanent human settlements when people are making money,” he says. “No bucks, no Buck Rogers.”

But the national space program, despite tighter budgets, is also exploring the possibilities of life after Earth. Last spring, President Obama announced plans for manned missions to a near-Earth asteroid by 2025 and Mars by the mid-2030s. In October, Darpa, the Pentagon’s R&D branch, issued a press release announcing a joint project with Ames to study the possibility of creating a “100-year starship,” what they called “the first step in the next era of space exploration—a journey between the stars.”

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Category: Science