Lockheed Martin, Boeing and United Launch Alliance
In any space race, old or new, it would be a mistake to discount experienced hands like Lockheed Martin and Boeing.
Lockheed Martin -- which has built every aeroshell flown by NASA to Mars, from Viking to the Curiosity rover to the upcoming Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) spacecraft -- was responsible for two spacecraft inserted into lunar orbit in January 2012, and is developing the Orion crew capsule for NASA's Space Launch System [sources: Lockheed Martin; Lockheed Martin].
In October 2011, Boeing signed a 15-year lease to use a space shuttle hangar at Kennedy Space Center to build and oversee its Crew Space Transportation-100 (CST-100) spacecraft. NASA funded the ship via its Commercial Crew Development program to the tune of $110 million. Also on Boeing's to-do list: the core stage for NASA's Space Launch System, which the company will begin testing in January 2014 [sources: Matthews; Roop].
Meanwhile, United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, continues to build Atlas V rockets, the platform on which several commercial ventures plan to launch their space planes or crew capsules. The mainstay rocket all but guarantees United Launch Alliance a future place at the table -- that, and ULA's 75 successful launches since its formation in 2006 (40 of which involved Atlas V vehicles) [source: United Launch Alliance].
The question is, will such strong ties to the old guard -- and the old school -- help carry the companies to the stars or strap them to a sinking ship? And can NASA keep the cash taps open over the long haul?