Man at Play in the Cosmos

A who's who of space-exploration contenders wouldn't be complete without capitalists, NGOs, big government and the clinically insane.

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Not long ago, space seemed the almost exclusive purview of governments†specifically those of the United States and the Soviet Union. Now, with private rocket companies building relatively inexpensive launch vehicles and entrepreneurs hawking the notion of sending tourists into space, anyone with a grand vision, a feasible plan and a big bankroll can take a shot at the great beyond. Here's our map of this brave new world. Influence is measured by distance from the Sun--the closer a group is, the more important it is.

The Sun At the center of the solar system, the Sun represents the future of space exploration, the light that gives hope to all.

NASA Despite its recent struggles, NASA still dominates access to space, both manned and robotic: The shuttle is the only craft big enough to lift new modules to the ISS, and the agency is by far the most successful sponsor of robotic space probes. NASA's new mandate to return to the Moon should drive development into the next decade.

Space contractors Lockheed Martin, Boeing and other companies orbit NASA, collecting lucrative hardware and software contracts.

Pentagon In addition to its eternal need for communications and spy satellites, the Pentagon is exploring space-based weaponry.

Russian Space Agency Russia is still a space powerhouse, with just one problem: It's broke. As in must-send-Lance-Bass-to-the-ISS-for-cash broke. Still, until the shuttle returns to flight, the U.S. is relying on Russian Soyuz and Progress craft to ferry astronauts and supplies to the station. But without funds, Russia's not going much farther.

Chinese Space Agency Late last year, China, with its notoriously secretive space program, became the third country to send a person into orbit. There are supposedly plans for further flights and a Moon base.

Other Space Agencies The European, Indian, Brazilian, Japanese and Canadian space agencies are developing new rockets, spacecraft and space-science
initiatives. But with the exception of the European Space Agency, they have yet to reach space on their own. ESA keeps pushing ahead and recently announced a plan to send humans to Mars by 2033.

Tier One Burt Rutan's rocket will probably launch a human into space later this year, becoming the first such project that's privately funded. (The multimillion-dollar investment came from Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft.) Within five years, a space-tourism company could be running weekly suborbital flights in a Tier Oneâ€like rocket.

X Prize Offering $10 million to the first group to launch three people into space twice in two weeks, the prize attracts teams like bees to honey. Rutan is still the odds-on favorite, but there are at least 26 other contenders, one of whom might just pull it off.

Advocacy Groups Organizations like the Planetary Society and Space Frontier Foundation lobby for the continued exploration and, in some cases, colonization of space.

Private Contractors These companies hope to make a profit from space, typically by building rockets and taking people--or, in the case of SpaceX, small payloads--into orbit.

Space Travel Agents Not just for the Dennis Titos of the world anymore, these companies offer ordinary folks a taste of the spaceflight experience. Team Encounter will sail your digitized DNA out of the solar system, and Space Adventures offers cosmonaut training in Star City, Russia.

Space Hoteliers What will we do on our space vacations? Stay at a space resort, of course. Bigelow Aerospace plans to build an inflatable space hotel, while others dream of one day converting the ISS into the great Hilton in the sky.

Wackos This last rung represents people who are arguably already in orbit. Individuals who, say, plan to strap themselves into a small rocket of their own construction and blow themselves into space.