Space, the final frontier, is in reach for some citizens — even though they don't hold an aerospace degree or keys to the shuttle. What they do have is millions of dollars and drive.
There is a growing group of private space innovators who are using their personal wealth to fund research and sometimes touch the stars themselves.
Entrepreneurs who envision the future of space in the public's hands imagine that the combination of dream, desire and dollars will eventually create a new space industry, outside of NASA, which will make heavenly travel affordable and inspire future generations to get involved.
Discoveries funded by private citizens could "create a much better future for our children than they have ahead of them right now," said Rick Tumlinson, founder of the Space Frontier Foundation (search), which aims to make space inclusive for all. "People don't realize we haven't even started to start yet as far as what's possible as where the human race can go."
A small fleet of tech industry bigwigs who see the future of space in private enterprise is making inroads to the great blue yonder.
Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen (search) donated $13.5 million to help create more than 200 satellite dishes that will search for extraterrestrial life.
Internet millionaire, Elon Musk, 32, founded SpaceX (search), a rocket development company that hopes to cash in on sending satellites — and eventually humans — into space. The first launch of his rocket Falcon I, carrying a U.S. Defense Department communications satellite, is scheduled for later this year.
Another online giant, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, started Blue Origin (search), a lab that aims to develop vehicles and technologies that will foster a human presence in space.
And aviation maverick Burt Rutan (search), who designed the Voyager airplane, which made the first nonstop, unrefueled flight around the world in 1986, was recently granted the first license for a manned subortbital rocket.
"These people all grew up inspired by the Apollo mission, by "Star Trek"....made their millions and billions and looked around and realized NASA wasn't doing it so they'd go do it themselves," said Tumlinson. "People are now getting fired up and excited for the first time in years about the fact that we're moving outward."
The license Rutan acquired is a prerequisite for the X Prize competition, an international space race that will give $10 million to the first company or person to launch a craft carrying at least three people 62.5 miles above the Earth, and then do it again within two weeks. The prize, announced in 1996, is sponsored by the privately funded X Prize Foundation (search) whose supporters include Charles Lindbergh's grandson, former astronaut and U.S. Sen. John Glenn (search) and actor Tom Hanks.
But what does NASA think about wealthy private citizens fueling space innovation?
NASA spokesman Allard Beutel said the organization doesn't consider space a battle between the private and public sectors — and even appreciates that it inspires others to reach for the stars.
"We absolutely encourage and look for innovation from the private sector," Beutel said. "There are a lot of roles to fill and NASA is just one aspect of that."
However Beutel emphasized that safety has to be a top priority with anyone interested in exploring space.
"NASA's role is to open up the frontier, to blaze that trail," he said. "Our concern, as were painfully reminded last year, is that space flight is extremely dangerous."
Despite the danger, some wealthy Americans have already started making strides into space — literally.
In 2005 millionaire Gregory Olsen (search) plans to follow in the spacesteps of previous space tourists Dennis Tito and Mark Shuttleworth when he blasts off via a program run by Space Adventures (search), the only U.S. company to have launched paying citizens to the International Space Center (search) — for $20 million.
Rocketeers, citizen explorers and millionaires with a special place for space in their hearts are "not looked at as competition at all" to NASA, said Beutel.
"The universe is very big, there's plenty of room for other people out here."
Olsen, for one, is grateful for the opportunity to visit space, but he’s not just going for a joyride. The Brooklyn native is also the CEO of Sensors Unlimited, Inc. (search), which develops infrared cameras, and he plans to conduct scientific experiments on the space station.
But that's all only one part of his experience, he said during a phone interview from a space station in Moscow where he recently started training.
"When I come down, the next chapter of my life begins," he said. "I want to visit as many schools as I can. I started from modest means; I persevered. If I can do it others can too."