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How the ultra-rich plan to conquer space (+video)

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Musk has estimated that Dragon could be ready to begin crew-carrying operations within three years. SpaceX is also developing a heavy-lift rocket and hopes to devise a completely reusable launch vehicle as well, with the ultimate goal of helping humanity colonize other worlds such as Mars.

Musk, who is also CEO of electric-car company Tesla Motors, is currently worth about $2 billion, according to Forbes. [Video: SpaceX's Quest for Rocketry Holy Grail]

Mid-air launches

British entrepreneur Richard Branson, who is worth about $4.2 billion, got into the game in 2004, when he founded the suborbital spaceflight firm Virgin Galactic.

Virgin Galactic plans to launch paying customers on suborbital jaunts, and it has already collected deposits from more than 500 people willing to pay the $200,000 ticket price. The company also has inked deals to fly scientists and their experiments to suborbital space.

Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo vehicle will launch to space after being carried about 50,000 feet (15,000 meters) above Earth's surface by a mothership known as WhiteKnightTwo. SpaceShipTwo has already made a series of glide flights, and the company is aiming for its first rocket-powered test flight by the end of the year. Commercial operations could begin in 2013 or 2014, officials have said.

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