Space Shuttle Atlantis Lands
Space Shuttle Atlantis lands at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, July 21, 2011. Reuters

When the space shuttle Atlantis touched down the early hours of Thursday morning, it marked the end of NASA's shuttle program. But a new constellation of companies is set to fill the void: instead of NASA ferrying astronauts into space, private firms are vying to become the first to return to the moon.

Google is prodding the burgeoning sector by bankrolling a contest to return people to the moon by December 2015, with the Google Lunar X Prize of $30 million going to the winner. 29 firms have already signed up, boasting ideas that range from broadcasting video feeds from the lunar surface to selling space to scientific institutions.

In the near future, the Moon Express lunar lander will be mining the Moon for precious resources that we need here on Earth, an invitation to a launch event for Silicon Valley based Moon Express read. Years from now, we will all remember we were there.

The prize money aside, there is a big financial incentive for getting in early on an untapped market. Barney Pell, a former NASA computer scientist who co-founded Moon Express, called it the biggest wealth creation opportunity in modern history.

Long term, the market is massive, no doubt, Pell said. This is not a question of if. It's a question of who and when. We hope it's us and soon.

Private firms have already begun sending people into space -- Virgin Galactic sells tickets on its orbital spaceship for $200,000 apiece -- but the demise of NASA's shuttle program means the agency is playing a deliberate role in in fostering the private space flight industry.

It has contributed money to the Lunar X prize fund, and in April the agency distributed $269.3 million between five U.S. aerospace companies who are busy developing systems to transport astronauts to the International Space Station (in the meantime, American astronauts will be paying Russia $43.4 million per seat for the privilege). Space Exploration Technologies Corp. said it is on pace to offer space flights for about $20 million a seat.

It has to be done for an amount of money that taxpayers are willing to pay, Chief Executive Elon Musk told the Wall Street Journal. That should allow NASA to transport a much greater number of astronauts and to get much more use out of the space station.

In addition to funding, NASA is providing personnel. Former astronauts, cognizant of NASA's dwindling resources and diminished scope, are transitioning into the private sector. The Washington Post reported that former astronaut Garrett Reisman will be helping SpaceX, which already has a contract to resupply the International Space Station, develop its Dragon transport capsule. His work will parallel that opf former colleague Pamela Melroy, who will be working to establish rules for the private space industry from her new position at the Federal Aviation Administration.