10 Major Players in the Private Sector Space Race

The X Prize and Other Awards
Pilot Brian Binnie holds an American flag after SpaceShipOne won the $10 million dollar Ansari X Prize. Awards like this can reinforce commercial space development. © Gene Blevins/LA Daily News/Corbis

Sometimes, inspiring excellence and innovation means setting an audacious goal and backing it up with a pile of cash. Take the nonprofit X Prize Foundation's Ansari X Prize for affordable spaceflight. It parlayed a $10 million award into more than $100 million in commercial space development [source: X Prize Foundation].

Aerospace engineer Burt Rutan and his financial backer, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, won the prize in 2004 for assembling the first private team to "build and launch a spacecraft capable of carrying three people to 100 kilometers above the Earth's surface, twice within two weeks" [source: X Prize Foundation]. Rutan subsequently helped Virgin Galactic develop its passenger space plane system.

Examples of other awards driving the new space industry include NASA's Centennial Challenges program, which provides $200,000-$2 million to support innovations in areas of agency interest, and the Heinlein Prize, which honors the eponymous science fiction author and rewards progress in commercial space activities.

Meanwhile, the X Prize Foundation continues to incentivize breakthroughs in space and on Earth. The Google Lunar X Prize will award $30 million to "the first privately funded teams to safely land a robot on the surface of the Moon and have that robot travel 500 meters over the lunar surface and send images and data back to the Earth." NASA has ponied up an additional $30 million in contract funds for winning lunar bots that meet key objectives [source:X Prize Foundation].

Of course, there's always inflation to deal with. Just ask our next private space company.