Saturday morning just before 5am, a rocket will lift off from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The rocket is bound for the International Space Station. The payload is unremarkable; the mission is a fairly basic cargo delivery. What matters here is the funding behind the launch: Saturday’s launch marks the first mission to the ISS headed by a commercial enterprise, in this case SpaceX.
SpaceX is one of a handful of companies fighting to control the next generation of space travel. Other contenders include XCOR, Space Adventures, and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. With budget cuts and the demise of the shuttle program, private sector companies are finding increasing opportunities to offer their services to NASA. It remains to be seen what role private companies may play in the future of space exploration, but it seems certain that launches like Saturday’s will become more commonplace in the coming years.