Climbing a Commercial Stairway to Space:
A Plausible Timeline?
by Clark S. Lindsey
Version 1: Created
Can we go from this level of technology
currently in development at small private companies -
sub-orbital vehicle R&D (e.g. Armadillo
and unmanned orbital TSTO (here the Kistler
to this level ==>
free flying space station (e.g. MirCorp
and a commercial module (e.g.
attached to the ISS & both serviced by a private RLV
with a pilot and 2-3 passenger capability
within 10-15 years using primarily
private investment & commercial development?
I believe the answer is
we really get to space with private investment?
we, I mean that space becomes accessible to a much wider range
of people than the current elite of astronauts and cosmonauts (and eventually
taiknonauts.) Also, this implies public oriented development such as
the construction of space hotels.
believable scenario be laid out in which small, independent companies
rely primarily on commercial markets rather than government contracts
to develop low cost space transport and habitats in orbit?
Yes, I think such
a scenario is quite possible, if not likely, and below I offer what I
consider a plausible timeline for it. The sequence assumes step-by-step,
incremental development in which each step requires:
- Relatively modest
investments (tens to hundreds of millions of dollars);
- Technology that's
mostly cheap-off-the-shelf and in those cases where it isn't, only limited
development is needed.
progress up this stairway to space depends primarily on reinvestment of
profits made from the markets developed at each step. (Demonstration of
positive cash flow also makes raising additional investments far easier.)
As I discussed
before, starting small and simple is actually the normal way
that industries develop. Profits are reinvested incrementally to improve
products steadily so that over time they become very powerful. Personal
computers, for example, started as hobby projects in peoples basements
and garages. Even up to the early 1990s, PC's were not considered a threat
to workstations and mainframes. Now they dominate the industry. Sub-orbital
vehicles could easily become the PC version of rocket transportation that
brings spaceflight to the masses.
Bootstrapping to Orbit
In bootstrap fashion
the process will build on:
- Reusable sub-orbital
vehicles capable of reaching +100km regularly and that require less
than $50 million to develop;
space tourism that will initially attract hundreds of customers
per year at $100,000 ticket prices and eventually thousands of customers
when ticket prices reach $50,000 and lower.
Note that this is
only a scenario or thought experiment intended to explore
the feasibility of such private space development. It's certain, of course,
that reality will be quite different. (The problem with the future is
that it's hard to predict!) The particular costs, prices, and market sizes
mentioned are just guesses and not derived from any business model computations.
See, however, the notes below
on why I believe the guesses are reasonable ones.
The timeline focuses
on the development of low cost space transportation. The Access to
Space column highlights the steps from basic X Prize type sub-orbital
vehicles to orbital vehicles. The Market Drivers column lists the
sources of income for the developers of these vehicles. The Other Developments
column gives a sampling of other private space developments happening
in parallel to those in space transportation.
I will modify and
update the timeline periodically as developments progress. The reference
section at the bottom provides materials and discussions to
support the above assumptions.
Private Space Development Timeline
- X Prize
vehicles begin sub-orbital flights leading to a winner before
the Jan.2005 deadline.
sub-orbital vehicle development starts
- X Prize
money and glory
of vehicles for space tourism
sends a commercial spacecraft into Lunar orbit.
- 2 tourists
per year go to the ISS aboard Soyuz transports
or more commercial sub-orbital vehicles begin regular flights carrying
1-2 passengers and other payloads on each trip.
market is tourism but additional markets include
- High altitude
imaging & reconnaissance
& other scientific payloads
of missile defense targets
- Air show
Recovery demonstrates comsat rendezvous, re-boost, and station-keeping
and/or LunarCorp puts a rover on the lunar surface.
- A private
company, e.g. Constellation
Services using a Kistler
K-1, begins cargo deliveries to the ISS.
of commercial sub-orbitals with 3-4 passenger capacity
carries a second stage that delivers small payloads to orbit
(e.g. RASCAL scale)
transportation grows to ~$100M to $200M a year industry carrying
1000-2000 space tourists per year plus serving the other sub-orbital
markets listed above.
- The small
payload delivery to orbit develops into a niche market.
begins construction of its Mini-station.
of satellites on the ISS for commercial LEO and GEO services
of commercial sub-orbitals with 5-6 passenger capacity
of a 2-stage orbital system using one of the previously developed
sub-orbitals as the second stage.
tourism grows to ~500 million dollar a year industry with 10000+
passengers per year plus the other sub-orbital markets listed
- The success
of the Russian program that has delivered 2 space tourists a
year to the ISS program at $20 million a shot attracts investment
for higher rate, lower cost orbital tourism ventures.
Mini-station launched and initially occupied by cosmonauts and
space tourists arriving by Soyuz.
Aerospace begins hardware development of a space habitat
based on inflatable, Transhab
space tourism trips begin on a two stage RLV.
hundred customers sign up for orbital space trips at ~$1 million
per seat for trip to the Mini-station.
vehicles also deliver tourists and researchers for short term
stays on the ISS.
- The Bigelow
Aerospace space hotel reaches orbit either as a free flyer
or as an attachment node to the ISS.
sends a spacecraft to an asteroid to prospect for possible mining
space tourism trips to the Bigelow
Aerospace space hotel.
thousand customers sign up for orbital space trips at ~0.5 million
per seat for trip to an expanded Mini-station and the Bigelow hotel.
- Plans for
the first tourist trip to orbit the Moon begin serious development.
made on the private space stations, such as exotic glass and
metallic artworks, begin selling on earth.
and Reference Materials
- A drastic downturn
in the US and world economies causes investments in space, even by space
angels, to dry up and potential markets like space tourism
- A serious accident
early in the X Prize and/or commercial sub-orbital vehicle development
leads to heavy regulation and restrictions that significantly slows
- Liability and regulatory
issues drastically stretch out the timeline even without a serious accident.
- Development of
sub-orbital RLVs with low operating costs and fast turnaround times
(a few days at most) is much harder and more costly than it now appears.
- Sub-orbital space
tourism starts off strong but then quickly falls in popularity and the
companies have little or no profit to reinvest in next-generation vehicles.
- Suborbital tourism
becomes and stays wildly popular and tens or hundreds of thousands of
customers start banging on the hanger doors demanding flights from the
- A strong upturn
in the US and world economies makes investments in space far more plentiful
and easier to find.
- The above scenario
assumes mostly US/Russian participation. If companies and governments
around the world come to realize that sub-orbital RLVs are an attainable
and valuable technology and soon begin developing such vehicles, this
will lead to strong competition and faster pace in their development.
in LEO make a comeback in, for example, tracking
of industrial goods. Initial launch and replacement services
for the satellites would offer a potentially lucrative market for low
cost launch providers.
The above timeline
relies on private companies raising tens to hundreds of millions of dollars.
These are far below the multi-billions usually mentioned in discussions
of space development but still significant amounts of money. Can small
startup companies obtain these kinds of funds?
Yes, at least according
to the following evidence :
space companies have raised similar amounts before:
- The attempts
to develop orbital RLVs to serve the expected LEO constellation
market saw several companies raise such investments:
investors have spent similar amounts of money
on space projects:
As indicated above,
a company with a successful sub-orbital business does not need to generate
all the funds itself if it wants to build an orbital vehicle. The demonstration
of profits from the sub-orbital business will instead allow it to attract
most of the funds from other investors. In fact, it might simply issue
a bond with interest paid from the current cash flow.
Even many space advocates
have taken slowly to the proposals of sub-orbital vehicles and tourism.
In the past year or two, however, sub-orbital has begun to attract closer
attention and increasing enthusiasm.
- Several market
studies have shown that the potential sub-orbital tourism
market is much bigger than many expected.
- In particular,
survey of wealthy households showed that 19% of the respondents
would be willing to pay up to $100k for a ride to 100km.
Adventures receives deposits
- Over 100 people
have place deposits or paid the full $98k ticket price to Space
Adventures for a sub-orbital ride even though no vehicle currently
exists. (Space Adventures has had joint press releases and presentations
with vehicle builders including XCOR and Cosmopolis XXI project.)
- Managers at
Space Adventures stated that signs are strong that many times this
number of customers would pay this price once a vehicle begins flying.
- See also the markets
review in Suborbital
Reusable Launch Vehicles and Applicable Markets - Department of Commerce
This indicates a market
of, at least, several thousand customers. That should be more than sufficient
to maintain several vehicles that would each carry 1-2 passengers and
fly every couple of days. At prices in the $98k range, this indicates
a market quickly reaching $100 million per year with traffic in the range
of 1000 passengers per year.
Of course, this will
require that the vehicles need low development costs (tens of millions
of dollars at most) and low operating costs for the companies to be profitable.
The fact that the
trip will only last half hour to an hour can be supplemented with a training
period, including simulator experiences, and a gradual dramatic buildup
to the flight. Even at only a half hour, riding a rocket across the edge
of space will be the thrill of a lifetime for most people. In fact, like
starting with snorkeling rather than scuba gear and a weeks stay in an
underwater habitat, many people may actually prefer this kind of short
test encounter with space travel rather than a long orbital trip.
Even if tens of millions
of dollars are found, can startup companies develop robust, reliable,
and safe sub-orbital vehicles with such sums? The signs are positive:
- Many of the current
X Prize and commercial sub-orbital projects claim they need $50 million
or less to develop a vehicle to take a pilot and two passengers (or
equivalent payload) to +100km. Examples of sub-orbital vehicle development
cost estimates include
developed the EZ-Rocket demonstrator and its own line of rocket engines
with a very modest amount of funding.
Rutan, who obviously has proven his credibility, has indicated that
an X Prize vehicle can be developed for a few million dollars.
If sub-orbital vehicles
are successfully developed with such funding, does it necessarily follow
that orbital vehicles can then be developed for something in the $0.5B
to $1B range? Again, the signs are positive:
- Experience with
the sub-orbitals will provide tremendously valuable data on how to build
and operate a rocket vehicle in a commercial manner. For example, the
successful sub-orbital company will know how to
- carry out frequent
and routine flights with a rocket powered vehicle
- achieve low
- build rugged
components common to both sub-orbital and orbital vehicles
- Kistler used its
half billion dollars to construct 75% of an unmanned, two-stage RLV
before funds ran out. No one has shown a reason that the K-1 would not
work if fully funded to flight status. A slightly more capable man-rated
vehicle with a somewhat greater payload capacity (e.g. a pilot and 2
passengers) hardly seems a huge step, especially after companies have
gained experience with sub-orbital vehicles.
It Really Doable?
Other than the roadblocks
mentioned above, most of which are outside of anyone's or any company's
control, there don't seem to be any showstoppers to keep private companies
from reaching orbit.
There is no need for
discovery of an unobtainium material or magical new propulsion
system. As pointed out by many other people, the key is a market big enough
to get the process of private development started and to sustain it. I
believe that the key market is sub-orbital tourism.
Certainly, the timeline
could be stretched out. For example, the time it takes the space tourism
market to reach $0.5 billon per year might take several more years than
However, the point
is that, surprisingly, the stairway is climbable. The financial and technical
steps are achievable as shown by the fact that similar step sizes have
been scaled several times already by private companies.
on Dec.27, 2002
On Dec.17th SpaceShipOne
flew the first supersonic flight for a privately developed vehicle. Other
suborbital projects make progress.
Elon Musk's SpaceX
unveils in Washington
D.C. the Falcon
I, which will become the first orbital launcher developed entirely
with private funds.
Space Adventures announced
that two persons have purchased rides on Soyuz capsules to the ISS.
In April Burt Rutan introduced the White
Knight/SpaceShipOne combo. Baring hardware disasters and regulatory
hangups, it should fly within a year at the latest. Several other X PRIZE
teams are also showing progress and should fly in that time frame as well.
So the first period (2003-2004) of the above timeline seems to be holding
up well so far.
Space Adventures and
the Russian space agency recently agreed
to restart the ISS tourist program. SA has reserved a Soyuz flight
for two passengers at $20M a piece to flyin 2004. They have 10 candidates
currently in various stages of training.
My article The
Million Man & Woman March to Space outlines how a relatively
small community of space enthusiasts could make big contributions to space
The paper Private
Stages To Orbit by Adrian Tymes, Michael Wallis, and Randall Clague
of the Experimental Rocket Propulsion Society proposes a set of federally
funded prizes to motivate private RLV development.
The participants in a brief discussion
- 2.16.03 on the sci.space.policy
newsgroup seemed to find the above timeline reasonable.
Good timeline, just
thought I'd give my two cents worth. An idea I've had as to how we can
go from a few X-prize class suborbitals to real space access is with
subDeorbital bizjets. Consider this situation: Eclipse or one of its
rivals suceeds in developing a very low cost jets (circa 2004). The
existing firms; Gulfstream, Raython, etc start to loose business and
look for a new direction. See these upstarts making money from space
hops, and join forces with them. (Another incentive could be if Gulfstream
decide to buld a supersonic bizjet, its rivals could trump them by going
would be very complementary; the start up brings experince (hopefully)
in rocket and suborbital tech, plus a low cost approach to engineering,
while the bizjet firm has capital (and credibility to raise more), and
experience in putting a design into production and gaining FAA approval.
Once the sub-orbital flights get going, it will certainly be interesting
to see how the other aerospace companies respond. Mergers and takeovers
will certainly be a strong possibility.
I did not address
the sub-orbital point-to-point travel market or the fast
package delivery because the confidence level in those markets
is not as high as in the tourism market, which is supported by the Zogby
survey, the +100 deposits at Space Adventure, etc. But it would certainly
add strength to the business plans of sub-orbital vehicle builders if
such additional markets appear.