By Bernd Debusmann

America’s Apollo program ran from 1961 to 1972. After a slow, trouble-plagued start, the United States sent 24 astronauts to the moon from 1969 to the final landing in 1972.

No other nation succeeded in setting foot on the moon. The Soviet Union tried and failed.

After the end of the Apollo program, public and government interest in manned moon flights faded. While the Soviet Union sent a few robotic spacecraft to the moon after 1972, Moscow, too, stopped moon flights.

But in the past few years, the moon in particular and space in general are generating enthusiasm again and are seen as worthy of exploration – and from new participants in the quest for deeper knowledge of the universe.

In January, China showed its technological prowess by landing a robotic space craft, Chang’e-4, on the far side of the moon and sent back never before seen close-up images.

Perhaps to steal some of the American thunder from the 50th anniversary of the man on the moon, India planned to launch a space craft to the moon on July 14, but the launch was called off less than an hour before lift-off. Still, although the launch was aborted, it highlighted India’s technological advances.

These were all government programmes, but the government monopoly on space exploration is being broken.

In April, the first privately-funded mission to the moon crash-landed on the lunar surface. Conceived by an Israeli non-profit, SpaceIL, the craft was meant to make a soft landing, take photographs and carry out experiments.

Will the future hold space travel on commercial vehicles, for profit? Very likely.

Virgin Galactic, the space arm of Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic, has already carried a passenger to the edge of space. And SpaceX, a company founded by Elon Musk, has plans to carry paying passengers to the International Space Station, a research laboratory in low orbit.

Such adventures would likely be exclusive to the super-rich. One estimate puts the price of a ticket at $52 million.