A free market for the quot;final frontierquot;

Near the beginning of the Chuck Palahniuk novel-turned-David-Fincher film Fight Club, the narrator dryly comments that when people get serious about space exploration, it won’t be NASA scientists naming the final frontier. Instead, independently owned corporations will discover and name “the IBM Stellar Sphere, the Microsoft Galaxy, Planet Starbucks.”

Palahniuk’s cynical observation aside, civilian and corporate-funded spaceflight, like that mentioned in Fight Club, is what NASA needs to revive the golden days of wide-eyed intrigue and “one small step for man” euphoria.

During the space race, NASA’s most noted accomplishments and ample budgets were motivated by competition with the Soviet Union. Involvement in a progress-inspiring competition is the incentive NASA could use to get its helmet back on straight.

Civil space flights make space accessible to people whose tax dollars give them no direct influence on the elite space program. These private ventures will force NASA to keep up at warp speed or at least let civilians who don’t have the Hubble telescope photo-of-the-day on their iGoogle know how its research is relevant to their everyday lives.

In the 1960s, astronauts appeared on black and white TVs across the nation and were portrayed as patriotic, brave and everything else two tween-aged trips to Space Camp taught me.

In the halls of the Kennedy Space Center in Florida hung framed portraits of the Gemini, Mercury and Apollo flight crews holding their helmets to their hips and beaming proudly.

Counselors would take us on walks through the Center after hours, sharing tales of spaceflight bravery like that of Ed White who, in 1965 became the first U.S. astronaut to float freely in the abyss of space.

But in a decade where Lisa Nowak, a NASA specialist in robotics who worked on the International Space Station, had such earthly misadventures as a country-traversing diaper-clad mission to kidnap a romantic rival, the image of NASA has been undoubtedly tarnished-like a big orange Tang stain on Sally Ride’s flight suit.

After the space shuttle Columbia tragically disintegrated during re-entry in 2003, The Columbia Accident Investigation Board, a body made up of military and civilian analysts, severely criticized NASA’s risk-assessment skills. Its final report, on Aug. 26, concluded that NASA shuttle launches and manned missions had been set back two years by the disaster.

In addition to public disappointments, NASA’s budget is considerably smaller than it was during the space race. In 1967, two years before the triumph of the Apollo 11 lunar landing, NASA’s budget peaked at an adjusted-for-inflation $24.8 billion. The Washington Post reported that out of the $2.77 trillion federal budget for 2007, only $16.8 billion was given to NASA.

In the same Post article, the budget includes the firing of about 10,000 full-time NASA employees and decreased funding for partnerships with educational institutions and businesses.

The National Aeronautics and Space Act, which created NASA in 1958, gave the government a monopoly on space travel.

The clause was repealed in 1984 due to increasing pressure from private corporations.

The House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics said the government should not restrict private space travel unless territorial “star wars” break out in orbit.

A 2003 report by the subcommittee said the FAA may regulate commercial spaceflight and impose safety standards, given final approval by the United Nations.

Despite this rather recent legislative talk, independently owned spacecraft have been in use since 2004. Tier One, a California-based company, created a $20 million project financed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.

The company launched SpaceShipOne, the first privately funded spacecraft built to resemble a commercial airplane.

Despite a jammed wing on the craft that cut the flight short and veered it more than 20 miles off course, SpaceShipOne completed its first mission safely. The “Microsoft Galaxy” is just waiting to be discovered.

Those who support NASA’s monopoly on space travel say that while NASA will continue to use its research for good, both on Earth and on the ground, independent astronauts are only seeking thrills and bills.

For example, NASA engineers recently used a design in the fuel apparatus of the space shuttle to help perfect a ventricular bridge. One day, this could serve as an artificial substitute for the human heart.

Meanwhile, rebel billionaire Richard Branson and The SpaceShip Company plan to launch customers into orbit as a profitable business venture as early as next year.

Branson, owner of The Virgin Group, estimates the price of the first 100 seats on the five-minute-long inaugural flight will sell for $200,000 each. This is an expensive and risky first step, but a step closer than NASA is willing to take.

According to NASA.gov, the program has no immediate plans to make space travel available to “anyone but highly trained astronauts and payload specialists” for safety reasons.

President Bush wants NASA to retire the space shuttle fleet in 2010, upgrading to larger and more powerful rockets by 2013. These rockets will allow for quicker trips to complete the still-in-progress International Space Station. Bush said he expects a temporary human residence on the Moon by 2020-a stepping stone to similar residency on Mars.

Perhaps the “giant leap for mankind” will be that civilians move in first.