Private rockets blast off

Chin up, space buffs. Stop mourning the end of America’s shuttle program and start celebrating the beginning of the next great adventure -- a for-profit space race led by young entrepreneurs who want to hurl rockets skyward more efficiently than the federal government ever did.

A capsule built by the private company SpaceX was launched into orbit from Cape Canaveral and later docked with the International Space Station, where its cargo of supplies was unloaded.

SpaceX is short for Space Exploration Technologies Corp. Its boss is billionaire Elon Musk, who’s 40. The average age of its employees is 30. And they’ve made history.

"Although cargo hauls have become routine," The Associated Press reported after the Dragon docked with the space station, "Friday’s linkup was significant in that an individual company pulled it off. That chore was previously reserved for a small, elite group of government agencies."

In fact, SpaceX could be a blessing for those formerly "elite" agencies. The company is contracted to make a dozen delivery runs. In three or four years, it could start ferrying astronauts into orbit so they won’t have to keep flying with the Russians.

Meanwhile, other private companies are designing and testing spacecraft, hoping to go into business with orbital supply flights and even space tourism. NASA is encouraging these ventures -- it gave $381 million in seed money, for instance, to SpaceX -- while setting its own sights higher, on future trips to the asteroids and Mars.

The romanticism of space exploration never ended. But from this point forward, it will be shared by private firms whose CEOs and investors believe they can make money in orbit.