The new space race may be more about who can profit most from the renewed push towards the heavens than the thrill of exploration. After all, much of the excitement in space exploration is over. (Sorry, space geeks, but we landed a human on the moon in 1969. Sure, the Mars rover is way cool, but don't bother waking me unless we set foot on the red planet.)

NASA will spend roughly $12 billion over the next five years on getting back to the moon, but the program could require hundreds of billions more, especially if we plan a permanent villa on our lunar satellite, as President Bush has proposed. That kind of ambition creates lots of possibilities for private industry and, therefore, investors.

Space exploration is one of the great Rule Breaking endeavors of all time, as I wrote here a couple of weeks ago. The great news is that you don't have to wait decades to get in on this action.

Check out Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT), which reported fourth-quarter and year-end earnings this week. While the mainstream media was feeding you news of Lockheed's delivery of 22 new F-16 fighter jets, Fools leafing through the results found that operating profits for the firm's Space Systems group are up 56% for Q4 and 44% for the full year, vs. comparable prior periods.

Go inside Raytheon's (NYSE:RTN) earnings and you'll see a note that says sales in its Space and Airborne Systems group were up 3%.

And finally, there's the other half of the United Space Alliance, Boeing (NYSE:BA), which reported that total revenues and earnings were up substantially during the fourth quarter. Revenues for launch and orbital systems, however, were down 9% from last year's fourth quarter. Still, the giant's remaining work for NASA on the International Space Station could be worth as much as $1.62 billion, and Boeing's full-year 2003 revenue for space projects was up 7% over 2002.

Foolish investors may have a lot to gain by focusing on these beleaguered giants. The shares of all three companies took a hit this week on worries over pension fund contributions. Yet all of them posted profits and generate big payloads of cash from operations. And don't underestimate their stellar dividend yields: Boeing, Lockheed, and Raytheon all offer payouts above the S&P 500's average of 1.53.

The space race is once again on. Honestly, I don't care who wins, but there should be plenty of profits to be found among the contenders.

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Tim Beyers is a tech geek but not a space geek. He doesn't own shares of any of the companies mentioned, but he lives within spitting distance of Lockheed's Space Systems division. Drop on by if you're in the neighborhood, or send him your reactions here.