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The U.S. Space Program

NASA

The U.S. Space Program

The U. S. space program has swung from the dizzying heights of human accomplishment to embarrassment and catastrophe. From the successful push to put a man on the moon 40 years ago this month during the height of the Cold War to the Challenger and Columbia disasters, America's striving toward the heavens at times seemed to encapsulate the country's hopes and dreams.

But in recent years, the National Aeronautics & Space Administration has struggled to maintain its vaunted stature. Technological breakthroughs have been rare. The best and brightest are more interested in working at Google or Facebook than NASA. Even some of the space effort's veterans say the agency is adrift without clear goals or a momentous mission to chase. A new group of private companies hope to reignite that excitement by offering innovative paths to space, using the logic of the private sector.

Data: NASA