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SpaceX launch: private industry inspires new generation of rocketeers (+video)

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Elsewhere, students graduating with advanced aerospace engineering degrees may spread themselves a bit more evenly. In an economy still struggling to rise from the so-called Great Recession, getting a foothold in one's chosen field, even if the employer is not a first choice, beats the alternative.

Still, NASA's new direction – contracting with commercial launch providers to carry cargo and people to destinations in low-Earth orbit while focusing on human exploration beyond low-Earth orbit – is putting extra spring in students' steps.

“What we're looking at here is not Apollo 2.0, it's a whole new future in spaceflight,” says Robert Braun, professor of space technology at Georgia Tech and former chief technologist at NASA. “And that is something that I can tell you reverberates with a lot of energy and excitement on college campuses across the country.”

Part of the interest may lie in the novelty the new companies represent, some specialists say. But a big part of it surely lies in the big ideas these companies are pursuing.

Even before its Dragon capsule launched on a Falcon 9 rocket to the space station, Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX) announced a joint marketing deal with Bigelow Aerospace in which SpaceX would launch people and payloads to Bigelow's inflatable habitats on orbit, a type of space module originally developed at NASA. Bigelow has two small-scale prototypes circling Earth now. The market the two companies see is international – providing access to space for countries outside the usual cast of spacefaring nations.

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