Profit in the stars: The commercial space race actually helps NASA

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Private companies like Orbital Sciences and SpaceX are making trips to the International Space Station look as easy as using Federal Express.

Recently, the commercial space rivals jockeyed to be the firm that NASA turns to when it must put satellites and other material into space fast. On Sunday, Orbital's Cygnus spacecraft carrying scientific experiments, food, clothes and other supplies successfully docked with the ISS after a software glitch temporarily sidelined it.

The same day, SpaceX launched its powerful Falcon 9 into space in a demonstration it hopes will give it an edge when contracts are awarded to build the next generation of heavy-lift rockets. Eventually, it will have to go head-to-head with the aerospace partnership of Lockheed Martin and Boeing.

Orbital has a $1.9 billion contract with NASA to complete eight cargo missions to the ISS, while SpaceX has a $1.6 billion pact to ferry supplies to the ISS.

SpaceX could be flying higher if it wins a three-way race with Sierra Nevada and Boeing to get the contract to carry astronauts to space. Not content with dawdling in low Earth orbit, SpaceX's founder, Elon Musk, is determined to colonize Mars as soon as his company develops a craft that can make the trip safely. Unleashing the commercial potential of space flight may be one of the best things that happened to America's space program.

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