The days of U.S. space exploration being strictly NASA's domain are over. The next phase of the space frontier is getting a major boost from the private sector. Billionaires like Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson have unveiled ambitious space tourism plans in recent years, while Elon Musk has even talked of colonizing Mars one day. In the meantime, Musk's SpaceX is one of many private companies now working to do what previously was only done by NASA---launching people, rockets and equipment into space.
As for NASA, the agency welcomes all the help. "NASA's always going to have a need for a low-Earth orbit platform, and the International Space Station (ISS) is almost certainly the last U.S. government-driven platform that we'll have," says Mike Read, Commercial Manager for the ISS at Houston's Johnson Space Center. "So that means if we're going to continue to provide for our needs in space, it's going to be on a commercial platform."
To that end, NASA recently launched an initiative to encourage commercial opportunities and private astronauts coming to the ISS. "We're doing everything we can to try and enable the private sector to step in and fill what we know is going to be a need of ours," says Read.
More than 50 companies are already working with NASA on various research and development projects for the ISS. "There are commercial companies currently doing research in space," says Read. "It could be for in-space manufacturing, for space tourism, and also for the development of marketing products...so it is a multi-faceted approach."
The near-term goal of NASA is to return to the moon. Specifically, the agency wants to land the first woman and next man on the moon by 2024, and plans on doing it with a lot of help from the private sector. "The moon is definitely a stepping stone if we want to go deeper into space, such as to Mars," says Read. "There's a lot we can learn from having extended habitation on the lunar surface."