The private space flight has largely been the province of stargazing billionaires, such as Microsoft (MSFT) co-founder Paul Allen, Tesla (TSLA) chief Elon Musk, and Amazon's (AMZN) Jeff Bezos. But one element of the modern-day space race -- the quest to launch a space-tourism industry -- is shaping up to be a David vs. Goliath battle. In one corner: the Virgin Group's flamboyant Richard Branson, who has poured more than $200 million into his impeccably pedigreed Virgin Galactic. In the other: a scrappy band of rocket engineers at little XCOR Aerospace, which aims to become the Southwest Airlines (LUV) of the rocket business. Both companies hope to be ready for liftoff by 2014.
The two are neighbors at California's Mojave Air and Space Port, in the desert 90 miles north of Los Angeles. Home to about a dozen private space companies, Mojave is a short hop from Edwards Air Force base, where Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier.