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By Alan Boyle Science editor
msnbc.com
updated 12/20/2004 10:37:16 AM ET 2004-12-20T15:37:16

It's been a banner year for Gerry’s Kids — and no, I'm not talking about Jerry Lewis and the Labor Day Telethon.

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This is Gerry with a G, as in Gerard K. O’Neill, the late physicist who wrote "The High Frontier" in 1977. His book laid out a blueprint for space exploration that is only now coming off the drawing board. The main theme: Don't rely on one giant governmental leap into the final frontier, but concentrate instead on lots of smaller, private-sector steps.

For Rick Tumlinson, an O'Neill protege who co-founded the Space Frontier Foundation, 2004 was the year Gerry's Kids and their allies — ranging from 61-year-old aerospace designer Burt Rutan to 33-year-old rocket entrepreneur Elon Musk — came into their own.

"This is the culmination of almost a decade's worth of work by a lot of people," Tumlinson says.

The year brought two O'Neillian paradigm shifts: One came in January, when President Bush announced a step-by-step approach to returning to the moon, then moving on to Mars and beyond. Another came in June, when SpaceShipOne became the first privately developed craft to break the outer-space barrier .

So far, SpaceShipOne has made the bigger splash — winning a $10 million prize , sparking historic legislation and setting the stage for a space tourism market . But in the longer run, NASA's space vision could become just as important for transforming the final frontier into a true commercial frontier.

This time around, the aerospace giants aren't the only ones vying for NASA contracts and giving advice: Gerry's Kids are also getting a piece of the action. And that's precisely what Tumlinson, defender of the O'Neillian faith, has been waiting for all these years.

"In the end," he says, "everybody will get more, have more, and be able to do more."

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