ARLINGTON, Virginia - The day of private-sector spaceships leaping from low Earth orbit to the Moon is not too far off.

That's the vision of Peter Diamandis, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of the X Prize Foundation. He was the sparkplug behind the $10 million Ansari X Prize claimed last year by the back-to-back flights to the edge of space by the piloted SpaceShipOne - built and backed by private funds.

In early October, Diamandis is leading the "Countdown to the X Prize Cup" - a showcasing of the emerging personal spaceflight era, to be held in southern New Mexico.

"For the first time ever...the power to go to space is now resident within the hands of individuals, not in the hands of governments," Diamandis explained before an audience attending the closing ceremonies of the 24th International Space Development Conference (ISDC), held here May 19-22, and sponsored by the National Space Society.

Bee-line for the Moon

The personal spaceflight revolution now underway is spawning a suborbital travel market that will lead to passenger traffic headed into Earth orbit, Diamandis said. "In the next five to eight years we will have the first private orbital flights occurring," he predicted.

Diamandis added that something very natural will happen when private orbital flights arise. "When you're in orbit you are two-thirds of the way to anywhere," he said.

"I predict that within about three years of private human orbital flights...you'll have the first private teams of people stockpiling fuel on orbit and making a bee-line for the Moon," Diamandis said.

"They'll not ask for permission...maybe cryptically hiding what they are doing...but there will be somebody making a bee-line to the Moon," Diamandis said. The first private team to reach the lunar landscape will stake out the ground. "They'll say this is ours. Stay away. I claim this for my company...my new nation," he said.

Millionaires and billionaires

Diamandis said that the wealth of individuals is rapidly increasing thanks to the evolving power of the Internet, and very shortly through breakthroughs in nanotechnology. Billionaires and multi-billionaires are making their own future happen, he said.

"At the same time the number of millionaires and billionaires are very rapidly increasingly...the price for getting into space is coming down. We're at that crossing point right now," Diamandis said.

Once private operators routinely gain access to orbit, the momentum forward is unstoppable, Diamandis said. "We cannot depend upon on the government to do this."

While wishing NASA and its new leader, Mike Griffin, good luck, Diamandis said, the space agency is subject to Congressional start-stop, start-stop funding. The fact that there are four to six human flights to orbit a year "is pathetic...and pathetically small."

That many flights departing Earth per day will signal robust and economically viable public space transportation, Diamandis argued. "It is the time. It is the moment of our calling. We're at the point in history where the human race is coming off the planet once and forever."

"We are the payloads of the future," Diamandis concluded.

Critical strategy

At a May 21 gala of the ISDC, held at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, Department of Transportation (DOT) Secretary Norman Mineta also highlighted the emerging public space travel sector.

Utilizing the commercial sector is "a critical strategy" for the future of the space in the United States, Mineta said, with commercial enterprises providing goods and services.

NASA needs low-cost, reliable space transportation to transfer both hardware and crew to the International Space Station, Mineta pointed out. Similarly, as the United States looks to resume the exploration of the Moon and eventually sending crews to Mars, there is also the need for private sector launch capability, he said.

Groups such as Virgin Galactic and Space Adventures, Mineta said, "are champing at the bit" to get the first tourists into space. "Suborbital space will be the first step for some of these companies...but orbital tourism is the ultimate goal," he added.

"We have entered a new era where entrepreneurial space businesses are being unleashed to do what American businesses do best: to innovate, to create and to drive quality up and cost down to the efficiencies of the marketplace," Mineta said.

New guidelines

Mineta said that he was enthusiastic about the Department of Transportation's growing involvement in space, pointing to last year's licensing of SpaceShipOne, the reusable launch vehicle. He also spotlighted the first inland spaceport license ever granted to a launch and reentry site operator in the United States - the Mojave, California spaceport.

"More and more states are seeing the potential and working to attract and develop new launch capabilities in their own states," Mineta said.

In the offing, Mineta said, are new ground rules for the eager inventors who are pushing the boundaries of public space travel. Later this week, he said, a set of guidelines are to be unveiled by the Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation within DOT's Federal Aviation Administration.

The guidelines "will shorten the time and lessen the burden on launch vehicle developers much like the aviation community has for experimental aircraft," Mineta said.

While his office has the responsibility to protect public safety, "our approach at the Department of Transportation is to allow this industry the freedom to develop, mindful that it is still in its infancy," Mineta said.

Leonard David is SPACE.com's Senior Space Writer.