NEW YORK -- A new era of human spaceflight is upon us, and its movers and shapers say it will be cheaper, safer and aimed at the masses.

Whether you just want to experience weightlessness, take a quick suborbital jaunt or spend a few days aboard the International Space Station or a space hotel, new space companies are cropping up, eager to compete for your business.

Representatives of the new industry spoke Saturday at Wired Magazine's NEXTFest. While fun and games capture the public's imagination and open pocket books, serious long-term commercial goals are also driving the push, said the  five-person panel, which included a NASA spokesman as well as the presidents and CEO's of Space Adventures, ZERO-G, Virgin Galactic and Rocket Racing League.

By filling in niches, such as orbital and sub-orbital flight, once occupied by NASA, private space companies will free up the agency's resources for other missions.

"NASA's budget is 16.8 billion dollars-six-tenths of one percent of the federal budget," said Chris Shank, special assistant to NASA chief, Michael Griffin. "For us to finish the International Space Station, go to the Moon and then on to Mars is going to require commercial and international investments. NASA can't do it by itself."

Shank says the agency plans to shift some of the workload involved in getting to space onto private businesses, freeing up the agency to focus on its federally mandated Moon, Mars & Beyond mission. This is happening already. For example, NASA recently awarded Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) and Rocketplane Kistler to deliver crew and cargo to the ISS.

"NASA is pioneering as it should, and hopefully abandoning parabolics, low-Earth orbit and letting industry take over as it moves forward," said ZERO-G president and co-founder Peter Diamandis.

"What NASA is rightfully doing is being the first out the doorway, going to the farthest bounds of science and exploration," added Alex Tai, president and CEO of Virgin Galactic. "That's not what we, at Virgin Galactic and the people on this platform, are trying to offer."

Options galore

With backing from Virgin mogul Sir Richard Branson, Virgin Galactic is planning to roll out its new commercial spacecraft, SpaceShipTwo, by 2008. Designed by X-Prize winner Burt Rutan, SpaceShipTwo will climb into suborbital space and give passengers a chance to experience weightlessness for several minutes. The price tag for the 2.5 hour trip: $200,000.

That cost is less than one percent the cost of another space package offered by the Virginia-based space tourism company Space Adventures. For about $25 million, a person can sign up with the company and, under a deal arranged with the Russian Federal Space Agency, blast off into space aboard a Soyuz rocket and spend more than a week aboard the ISS. Since 2001, four space tourists have signed up for the trip. The latest, Anousheh Ansari, was the first woman to do so.

For an additional $15 million, Space Adventures is offering participants the chance to take part in 90-minute space walks. And plans are in the work for a 3-day trip to the moon and back for $200 million.

If $200,000 still doesn't sound like quite a deal, then for $3,750, ZERO-G will let you experience weightlessness while flying up and down in a modified Boeing 727-200 aircraft. Or if you prefer to glimpse the future of spaceflight from the safety of the ground, then the new sport of rocket racing might be for you.

Safer spaceflights

Granger Whitelaw, President and co-founder of Rocket Racing League, describes rocket racing as a "21st century sport built with 21st century technology for 21st century people."

Essentially a rocket-powered NASCAR in the sky, rocket races will consists of at least 10 rocket-powered planes flown by professional pilots in a three-dimensional racetrack in the air.

Whitelaw insists that rocket racing will be about more than just entertainment. "In rocket racing, we're going to be testing a lot of technologies," he said. "It's like a Formula One IndyCar with big auto manufacturers-those technologies end up in your car. Competition breeds innovation, and innovation is what makes it safer and funner."

Spacecraft safety was another thing that all the panelists agreed would benefit from the new space tourism industry. Currently, there is a 1 in 100 chance of something going significantly wrong with the launch of each NASA space shuttle.

"Would I go on a space shuttle? Of course I would, I'd go in a heartbeat," Tai said. "Would I go a hundred times? I would have to think about that one. What we're doing with SpaceShipTwo is making it tens of thousands of times safer."

But as with flights aboard airplanes, the risks involved in human spaceflight will never be zero.

"Everyone here is trying to build the safest possible vehicle, but there is risk," Anderson said. "We can't deny that risk because that would not enable us to progress. So we must all understand that while we're trying to innovate and change things, people that fly in these vehicles in the early years should not think there is no risk. There is always risk, and you just have to be able to accept that risk to open the frontier."