NASA may have stopped its Space Shuttle program, but space exploration is far from over. Private companies such as SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, Orbital Sciences and XCOR are on the cusp of a new era.

Private space exploration and space tourism may be an unproven industry, but it's not stopping these companies from investing big money to get it off the ground.

The New Space Race
Where NASA and the U.S. government wanted to control a little piece of space, these private companies have their sights set on a different goal. If the old Space Race was about power, the new Space Race is about profits.

SpaceX was recently contracted by the International Space Station (ISS) for $1.6 billion to deliver supplies to and from space station. The SpaceX group, is founded by PayPal co-founder, Elon Musk. Recently, they launched their Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral on May 22, and it will be the first private rocket to dock with the International Space Station. Although the rocket is unmanned for this flight, SpaceX wants to use it for manned space flights in the future. Other companies are testing their own versions of future manned-launched as well.

These companies believe that customers will pay for the chance to reach parts of space and they already have a handful of customers signed up. Eventually, Musk hopes that people will want to travel to Mars, and he thinks some will eventually pay half a million dollars to get there.

NASA Still in the Mix
Selling space flights isn't the only way companies are looking to turn a profit in space. The U.S. currently pays Russia about $60 million to send an astronaut into space, but private companies say they can do it for much cheaper. SpaceX told the New York Times that they'd be able to do it for a third of that cost in the near future.

According to an article by Discover News, congress recently announced that NASA has to choose only one private company that it will use to send its astronauts to space. According to a budget proposal by the Obama Administration, $830 million would be invested into a private space company "to develop a U.S. capability to transport crews into space, thereby eliminating our dependence on foreign capabilities in this area."

This ramps up the competition between the new space exploration companies and could eventually push some players out of the game. But it's still too early to tell how this will impact the private Space Race. Some of the companies vying for the government contract are also pursuing other endeavors besides space flights.

The Bottom Line
If the U.S. government chooses just one company to build its future space program on, it might be difficult for the others to keep up. However, regardless of which company they choose, don't expect this industry to go away any time soon. Exploring is part of human nature, and a lack of government funding won't change that.