NASA's approved budget for FY 2010/11 (the current government fiscal year) includes $1.6 billion for development of commercial space opportunities - i.e. similar to Virgin Galactic.
Just about three weeks ago, the Virgin team completed the first piloted flight of SpaceShipTwo, also known as Virgin Enterprise - the planned spaceflight vehicle, for which 340 tickets have already been sold!
This is out at the "international Spaceport" in Mojave, California - which believe it or not is in Los Angeles County. This is the high desert north of Palmdale and Lancaster, which are the towns near Edwards AFB, the west coast landing site for the Space Shuttle. I think this picture shows how gorgeous the "high desert," also known as the Mojave desert, can be. At its pretty times, it's big sky country, and spectacular.
I have a charming neighbor who works for a major aerospace contractor (Northrop Grumman) and a while back, he shared with me a few of the amazing technologies just this one, admittedly important, company is working on. Just one among the technologies is a lab-version of "beam me up, Scotty." That's right - a matter transporter. One of Northrop's teams working in Redondo Beach also just received Popular Mechanics' 2010 "Breakthrough Award" for its work in developing the LCROSS (Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite) that was successfully launched last year. The award was given because the team developed commercial, affordable components that wouldn't just be used for the LCROSS, but could also be used in numerous other space operations. Total cost to build and launch the LCROSS? $57 million. As a point of comparison, the Space Shuttle Endeavor cost $1.7 billion to build, and $450 million per launch.
I'm hardly the expert, but I think space science and technology has undergone a genuine revolution in the past two decades. My impression of the former programs is that they were almost 100% government-sponsored, very hierarchical, and once begun, very difficult to adjust or alter in light of changing world- and technology conditions. Now, the diversity of those working on space-related science and technology is staggering. It isn't just different countries becoming fully-involved and engaged (Europe and Asia), it's nearly every university around the world with at least a few projects in experimental fields - including community colleges! NASA just selected community college students to begin to work in space/technology centers to work - for real - on many different forms of space technology.
So, the answer is "no, it's not just Richard Branson." Check out the agenda for the Space Manufacturing Conference taking place this weekend! This conference deals with real work currently being performed leading to asteroid mining and space settlement - moon or orbiting stations.
Why am I learning all about this? Book, of course . . .
Now, as to why many people don't hear more about these exciting technological developments occurring worldwide, is it that members of the media don't understand, or don't care? Or both?