Virgin crash: The tech moguls behind the race for commercial space travel

The concept of space travel has proved an irresistible allure for many entrepreneurs who've made it in the tech world, and they have been spurred on by NASA's increasing reliance on private companies to conduct space missions.

Space tourism industry is shaken by the Virgin Galactic crash, but tech titans still seek lift-off

This view of a setting last quarter crescent moon and the thin line of the Earth's atmosphere is one some private sector moguls want to see in person in their lifetime, and they have their fortune to spend trying to get it. (NASA/Reuters)

Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic company is reeling from the loss of SpaceShipTwo, which crashed in California's Mojave desert on Friday, killing one of its pilots and seriously injuring the other. 

Branson, a billionaire business mogul whose Virgin group of companies have ranged from music to airlines to mobile phones, founded Virgin Galactic ten years ago with the aim of offering flights to the edge of space for anyone who could pay the $250,000 price tag. The future of Virgin's commercial suborbital flight program is unclear in the wake of the tragic accident.

The 64-year-old Branson is not the only businessman in the space trade. Historically space and aviation have been a point of fascination for moguls who have made their fortune and want to accomplish something bigger.

Eccentric millionaire Howard Hughes, who made his name in the film business in the 1920s and 1930s, fixated on aerospace and aviation and built innovative airplanes and set air-speed flying records. And James Lick, a real estate tycoon, spent a fortune building a state-of-the-art telescope and observatory in 1876 in San Jose, California.

Today, the concept of space travel has proved an irresistible allure for many entrepreneurs who've made it in the tech world, and they have been spurred on by NASA's increasing reliance on private companies to conduct space missions.

The industry has been rocked by SpaceShipTwo's crash coming just days after the explosion of an Orbital Sciences Corp. commercial supply rocket bound for the International Space Station. But the race for commercial space travel continues. Here's a look at the major tech titans leading the way:

Elon Musk

Elon Musk, chief executive of Tesla Motors and SpaceX. (Stephen Lam/Reuters)

The 43-year-old co-founder of PayPal and head of Tesla Motors launched Space Exploration Technologies Corp. in 2002 with the ultimate goal of developing the technology to allow humans to live on other planets.

SpaceX, which has flown unmanned cargo capsules to the International Space Station, unveiled a new spacecraft in May designed to ferry up to seven astronauts to low-Earth orbit. (Jae C. Hong/Associated Press)

SpaceX, as it is known, designs, makes and launches advanced rockets and spacecraft. In 2012, NASA hired SpaceX to deliver cargo and eventually astronauts to the International Space Station. The company's spacecraft have since made five trips to the International Space Station and back, including four official resupply missions.

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The Hawthorne, California, company has over 3,000 employees and operates the spacecraft Dragon and the launch vehicle, or rocket, known as Falcon 9. It also has a rocket called Falcon Heavy under development. Its Dragon spacecraft is expected to begin manned missions in the next two to three years.

Jeff Bezos 
Jeff Bezos is the 50-year-old CEO of Inc. (Ben Margot/Associated Press)

The 50-year-old co-founder of Inc. started Blue Origin in Kent, Washington, in 2000 to develop technology to make human access to space easier. It is currently focused on developing rocket-powered vertical takeoff and landing vehicles for access to the edge of space and beyond.

At Blue Origin’s West Texas facility, a test of a new hydrogen rocket engine mimics flight of the New Shepard, and is intended for use on vehicles carrying humans to low-Earth orbit. (NASA)

As of 2012 Blue Origin had received $22 million from NASA. Its crew and cargo vehicle, called New Shepard, is designed to eventually take tourists to suborbit. Last month, United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co. that launches unmanned rockets, picked Blue Origin to develop a rocket engine that could eventually replace the Russian rocket engine used in many American unmanned launches.

Paul Allen

Microsoft co-founder and SpaceShipOne sole funder Paul Allen, left, poses with SpaceShipOne designer Burt Rutan at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington. (Reuters)

The Microsoft Corp. co-founder teamed with aerospace pioneer Burt Rutan in 2004 on the experimental SpaceShipOne, which was launched from a special aircraft. It became the first privately financed, manned spacecraft to dash into space and later won the $10 million Ansari X Prize for accomplishing the feat twice in two weeks.

More recently, the 61-year-old's Stratolaunch Systems, based in Hunstville, Alabama, is developing the world's biggest plane to help launch cargo and astronauts into space. Called Thunderbolt, it is tentatively scheduled to launch in 2018. Stratolaunch is working with Orbital Sciences and Rutan's Scaled Composites. SpaceShipTwo was piloted by Scaled Composites, under contract with Virgin Galactic, during this week's fatal crash.

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Jeff Greason

XCOR CEO and founder Jeff Greason. (XCOR)

The rocket scientist and former Intel Corp. employee founded XCOR Aerospace in 1989. XCOR also is pursuing space tourism and hopes to conduct flight tests for its Lynx spaceship beginning in 2015. In September, XCOR was partner to the Federal Aviation Administration approving a commercial space launch licence for Midland International Airport in Texas, where XCOR operates a research and development centre.

The Lynx, a two-seat rocket ship XCOR is developing, is designed to be capable of suborbital flights to altitudes more than 60 kilometres above the Earth. (Mike Massee/XCOR/Associated Press)

The 50-employee company is based at Mojave Air and Spaceport in Southern California and has built 13 different rocket engines and built and flown two manned rocket-powered aircraft — the EZ-Rocket and the X-Racer. Greason has served on the U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee.

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