By Irene Klotz
Cape Canaveral, Florida
It was no accident that aircraft designer Burt Rutan chose to make history on the anniversary of Sputnik.
The prize-winning flight of SpaceShipOne, the first privately funded human space flight on 4 October, 2004, may prove to have as great an impact as the little metal sphere the Soviets launched 50 years ago that heralded the dawn of the space age.
Like Sputnik, which provided a powerful demonstration that travelling in space was actually possible, SpaceShipOne's journey beyond the atmosphere broke a mindset.
The captivating machine, which now hangs in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC, showed that space was not only the domain and business of governments. Private people could get there, too.
"There never was a commercial driver behind manned space flight," said Elon Musk, who has invested millions of dollars gleaned from the sale of his two internet financial services firms into a new venture called Space Exploration Technologies to develop low-cost space transportation.
The US government ended up making a critical technical decision to develop the space shuttle, which proved to be expensive to operate and deadly.
"The space shuttle was supposed to operate very frequently and the cost per flight would have been low," Musk said. "If those things had turned out to be true, then the shuttle would have been a good decision. But it turned out to be very much not true, and that resulted in us flat-lining.
"We've been basically working on the shuttle since the mid-1970s, and here we are 30 years later still working on the bloody shuttle. Now, finally, I think we've see a driving change at this point," he said.
Changed mindset: SpaceShipTwo will soon enter service
The road to space is actually forked, with the United States planning to develop a new transportation system to replace the shuttles, which are to be retired in three years, and a commercial space transportation effort beginning to take shape.
Because the new US vehicle will not be ready until at least 2015, the commercial ventures may actually get a head start.
A commercial version of SpaceShipOne is expected to be unveiled next year, with suborbital passenger services to follow by 2010.
Musk is working on a capsule that can carry crew to the International Space Station and at least a half-dozen other firms, many with deep pockets from previous successful internet business ventures, are designing and testing a new generation of spaceships for hire.
Musk has spent millions developing his private launch system
Not to be left behind, mainstream aerospace contractors are starting to take note. Europe's EADS-Astrium announced in June it was developing a four-person spacecraft to make suborbital trips.
California start-up Constellation Services International is teaming up with United Launch Alliance to explore the use of Lockheed Martin's Atlas 5 boosters to carry a commercially developed cargo canister to the station.
"I think space is beginning to have its second life," said Pete Worden, a long-time commercial space advocate who now heads Nasa's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California.
"Every technology has an exponential growth, but then it kind of levels out," he said.
"After a while, you see a steady growth that begins to really get to where the dramatic capabilities that you originally thought were going to happen so fast do begin to happen. I think we're seeing that beginning in space."
For the kids who grew up in the space age, it has been a long time coming.
"It's sobering to think that 40 years have passed and we have not been back to the Moon," said astronaut Andy Thomas.
"It'll be more than 50 years by the time we actually do get back. I think that's really a sad indictment. We shouldn't have waited that long."
"What remains to be seen is if the government or commercial initiatives can ignite students' interest in science and engineering the way Sputnik galvanised a generation.
Governments have promised a return to the Moon by 2020
"It was that generation that gave us all the technology that we're so happy to use today - communication satellites, Blackberries, computers, etc," said Ed Weiler, an astronomer and the director of Nasa's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
"The real fear is that our kids aren't going into science and engineering like they used to," he added. "The rest of the world is, but we're not and that's a real fear for this country."