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Climbing a Commercial Stairway to Space:
A Plausible Timeline?
Vers. 2006

by Clark S. Lindsey
February 2, 2006
[Updates]


X-PRIZE
Credits: Pat Rawlings - April 1, 1998
XP Cup on Oct 9th 2005
X PRIZE Cup
Oct. 9, 2005, Las Cruces NM

Any space enthusiast, especially any who grew up during the 1960's space age, knows very well that most grand space plans never fly, at least not within the predicted time scale. However, as illustrated by the above images, some amazing space schemes do occasionally get off the ground. This page is dedicated to the thesis that such successes will become more and more common as private space efforts multiply and grow in the next few years.

In the previous Commercial Stairway to Space: Timeline - 2005 and 2004, I laid out what I considered a credible set of milestones that would lead to a scenario in which private, commercial activity dominates space development by the middle of the next decade. This will depend primarily on creating space transport systems that offer significantly lower prices for access to low earth orbit, i.e. a few hundred dollars per kilogram instead of the several thousand that it takes today. So the emphasis in the timelines shown below is on the development of low cost space transport and on markets that will encourage high flight rates.

Note: Only high fight rates will push flight costs down but this obviously requires space transport systems that are capable of high flight rates. So we need spaceships that are fully reusable, highly reliable, allow for fast turnaround between flights, use small operational crews, and are robust (i.e. need only infrequent overhauls.)

I first review what actually happened and didn't happen in 2005 and compare that to last year's expectations. Not surprisingly, several of the "predictions" for 2005 did not occur. For example, the SpaceX Falcon 1 rocket did not fly and no new private suborbital vehicles broke the 100 km borderline to space. A number of other events, however, did occur as expected and also several unexpected events took place that were quite positive such as the announcement of the formation of the Rocket Racing League. Furthermore, some events were merely postponed, e.g. the next Falcon 1 launch attempt is currently scheduled for this month.

Step-by-Step to Space
As I said in previous years, my intention is not to predict in detail what will happen. The emphasis is on highlighting the existence of a broad and substantial movement towards private spaceflight, not on individual companies. So while company "A" may fail to achieve its goals, company "B", "C", or "D" will have better luck (and maybe a better design and/or business plan) and succeed at those same goals.

The wealth of space angel investors is currently the primary fuel that is propelling the entrepreneurial space movement forward. However, it will not always be dependent on the generosity of a few farsighted individuals. As with most every other commercial technology, practical space transport that is robust and low cost will be achieved with a step-by-step development process in which each step builds on the lessons learned and profits earned in the previous step.

So, for example, rocket racing will take place far below orbit but it will teach companies how to build rocket engines that are safe, can be fired many times, and are relatively cheap to operate. If rocket racing is a commercial success, the companies involved will gain the financial wherewithal to fund further rocket engine and vehicle development.

_d
The Rocket Racing League plans demonstration flights
in 2006. Racing events should begin in 2007.

In 2005 the prospects for space tourism continued to strengthen. It appears now that both suborbital and orbital tourism will provide markets big enough to support several successful space transport companies. In that case, private space development will become self-sustaining and not depend solely on funding from a small number of wealthy investors.

Space Settlement - The Growing Motivator
While exploration and science are important reasons for going into outer space, large scale settlement of space will be one of the most profound developments in the history of humanity. Our solar system offers enormous resources and can provide incredible opportunities for economic growth and cultural diversification. Furthermore, it can ensure that any planet-wide catastrophe on earth does not mean the end of humanity.

In 2005 the giggle factor associated with the space settlement proposition did not disappear entirely. However, as happened with space tourism after Dennis Tito's ISS flight, the laughing is starting to die away and serious consideration of the concept is becoming more widespread. Several of the space angel investors, such as Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, have made it quite clear that they are pursuing space development because of their strong belief that people will eventually move to space colonies throughout our solar system.

Bigelow Aerospace
Bigelow Aerospace will launch its first prototype
habitat in 2006.

Expanding Private Space
The viability of space development by private enterprise continued to solidify in 2005. Space angel investors maintained their funding of a number of ongoing projects. Several new enterprises made their debut (see the table below). The list of new types of commercial space businesses and the number of participants in entrepreneurial space businesses all continued to grow.

Even NASA got into the act when it began its COTS (Commercial Orbital Transportation System) program, which will pay for cargo and crew delivery services to the ISS. This program does not require that payloads and crew travel via rockets designed and operated by NASA. Instead the agency will leave it solely up to the companies to decide how best to provide these services.

Of course, as in any industry, individual companies come and go and several prominent alt.space firms have left the scene in recent years. However, new firms have arisen to take their place. There is today a breadth and depth to the new entrepreneurial space movement that has not been there previously.

The following quote was in last year's timeline and has even more credibility after 2005:

"However, there is one point that needs to be made early in this discussion that clearly is not understood by the traditional space establishment. I believe the new space frontier movement can survive and even begin the opening of space completely on its own, even if NASA vanished tomorrow." - Rick Tumlinson, Space.com / Space News - March, 2005.


Timelines - Old and New

The first table reviews progress since the first timeline was created. The second table lays out an updated, revised timeline. (Since lowering the cost of transport from earth to orbit is crucial to all important goals in space, that category is given the greatest emphasis here.) See the 2004 discussion of what could delay or accelerate the scenario laid out here.

The Private Space Development Timeline - Review of 2005
(Compare Timeline - 2005)

Period

2005-2006 Prediction March 2006 Status More Developments
in 2005
2005

Access to Space

Two to three private organizations begin test flights of full scale suborbital vehicles.

SpaceX carries out the first launch of the Falcon 1 in 2005. The first launch of the Falcon V occurs in 2006.

Several teams announce their participation in the America's Space Prize contest.

Kistler is still alive and looking for funding to emerge from bankruptcy.

Market Drivers

  • X Prize money and glory

  • Development of vehicles for space tourism

Other Developments

  • TransOrbital sends a commercial spacecraft into Lunar orbit.

  • 2 tourists per year go to the ISS aboard Soyuz transports

 

 

Access to Space

  • There were no flights to 100km Several companies, such as Armadillo Aerospace, PlanetSpace, and Rocketplane, TGV Rockets, etc., however, continued vigorous development programs.

  • Virgin Galactic and the Spaceship Company (Burt Rutan) continued to develop their system for space tourism flights in the 2008-2009 timeframe.

  • SpaceX attempted twice during 2005 to fly the Falcon 1 but technical problems prevented launch both times.

  • There has not been an official listing released of America's Space Prize competitors.

  • Kistler is all but dead. The main investment company pulled its support because it said it could no longer wait for NASA to offer Kistler an ISS resupply service contract, which it needed to attract sufficient private investment to finish the K-1 construction.

  • The June 2005 launch of the Cosmos 1 solar sail prototype did not reach orbit due to the failure of its Russian launch vehicle.

  • AERA Space became Sprague Astronautics and seems unlikely to fly anything in the 2006-2007 timeframe.

Market Drivers

  • Over 300 people have paid deposits or the full ticket price to Virgin Galactic and Space Adventures for suborbital spaceflights. VG says that it has received over $11M so far and that the first two years of flights are already sold out.

Other Developments

  • TransOrbital is still developing its spacecraft and raising funds but has not announced a firm launch date.

  • ISS/Soyuz tourism - Greg Olsen became the third space tourist to fly to the ISS.

  • Space Adventures has indicated that there are several other serious candidates for future flights.

  • No word on when Xero will begin offering weightlessness experiences on parabolic flights.

 

  • The X PRIZE Cup held its debut event in October and around 15,000 people came to see various rocket exhibits and flights.

  • The Rocket Racing League was unveiled.

  • Richard Branson and the Governor of New Mexico announced an agreement to build a $250 M commercial spaceport near Las Cruces

  • SpaceX announced development of the Falcon 9 heavy payload launcher, which, in its most advance version, will be capable of placing over 24,000 kg into LEO.

  • Transformational Space (or t/Space) carried out several hardware tests using only its Phase 1 proposal contract money from NASA, which was expecting to get just paper studies.

  • AirLaunch LLC won a large DARPA grant to develop its unmanned orbital vehicle.

  • ZERO-G seems to be making good money with its commercial "weightlessness flights" for the general public.

  • Jeff Bezos Blue Origin began developing facilities in West Texas and in Washington state in support of its VTOL RLV project.

  • NASA began its Commercial Orbital Transportation System (COTS) program in which private space transport companies will compete for contracts to deliver cargo and crews to the ISS.

  • SpaceDev announced a new design for its Dream Chaser orbital vehicle based on the NASA HL-20 design.

  • PlanetSpace in December announced it would compete for the COTS contract with its Silver Dart based on the Flight Dynamics Laboratory #7 (FDL-7) glider design from the 1960s.

  • Several contests gave away tickets for rides on suborbital space tourism vehicles.

  • Orbital Recovery announced a contract for its first comsat life extension mission.

 

 

 

Note: In the following table where I list particular firms, my intention is only to show that there exists one or more real companies that could accomplish a given milestone. There will very likely be other companies that accomplish the same thing, perhaps even sooner.

It's also certain that some companies listed here will not achieve their goals and will perhaps disappear completely from the scene. That is the nature of the commercial environment. The point here is only to indicate that the private sector is capable in principle of attaining a particular goal and that eventually some company will do it.

The Private Space Development Timeline - Vers. 2006

Period

Access to Space Other Private Space Developments
2006

Several private organizations begin test flights of full scale reusable suborbital vehicles.

SpaceX carries out three launches of the Falcon 1 in 2006.

The Rocket Racing League holds its first demonstration events in 2006.

The XP Cup expands to a 2-day event and many more rockets fly and many more people attend that did in October 2005.

NASA announces in June the winner(s) of the Commercial Orbital Transportation System (COTS) contracts for ISS cargo resupply. This provides money and credibility to the winners, who in turn may use the contracts to raise additional private investment for vehicle development.

Unmanned reusable sounding rockets such as those from UP Aerospace and Beyond-Earth Enterprises start to fly small payloads (science experiments, student projects, memorabilia, etc.) They will build businesses based on fees for such flights.

NASA announces the purses and detailed requirements for the two suborbital vehicle Centennial Challenges that were first revealed at the XP Cup in 2005. Several companies sign up to contest for the competition.

Bigelow Aerospace in early 2006 launches its first Genesis 1/3 scale inflatable habitat module on a Russian Dnepr rocket.

The primary suborbital market is tourism but additional markets develop in the areas of:

  • High altitude imaging & reconnaissance
  • Experiments in microgravity, astronomy, atmospheric studies, magnetosphere research, & other scientific areas
  • Release of missile defense targets
  • Air show exhibitions

ZERO-G expands its service to at least one other city in the US.

SpaceShot and other skill game enterprises become a new space business that gives people with modest incomes a shot at getting a spaceflight ride.

Daisuke Enomoto will become the fourth tourist to go to the ISS.

Space Services Inc. flies in 2006 a payload of cremated remains on the first Falcon 1 to launch from Vandenberg. With the availability of regular, low cost space access via the Falcon 1 vehicle, (and launched from a site easily accessible in the US for friends and families of the deceased) the company finally builds a successful space burial business.

 

2007-2008

SpaceX carries out the first launch of the Falcon 9 in 2007.

The Rocket Racing League has several teams racing in at least three separate events in 2007.

Mojave Aerospace Ventures begins test flights of the SS2 in 2008 and Virgin Galactic begins passenger flights in late 2008 or early 2009.

The $250M Southwest Regional Spaceport opens in 2008 in time for the first Virgin Galactic flights.

At least two or three other private organizations begin crewed flights of full scale suborbital vehicles. The following companies, for example, indicate they have significant funding as of 2006 and will be building and flying crewed vehicles in this time frame:

Other suborbital projects listed here may also obtain funding and fly vehicles by 2008.

In addition, one or two of the suborbital vehicles start launching small expendable second stages to take small payloads to orbit.

At least one or two companies demonstrated cargo launches to the ISS under the COTS program.

AirLaunch LLC places a small payload into orbit on the first demo flight of its QuickReach vehicle.

The suborbital Challenges are won by late 2008.

Bigelow Aerospace carries out "two '"Guardian' 45% scale inflatable module flights in 2007 carrying critical life-support system demonstration hardware." (Spaceflight Now article.)

Bigelow Aerospace launches the unmanned full scale Nautilus module in 2008. (Spaceflight Now article.)

By the end of 2007, several hundred people place deposits down for tickets to fly on the SS2 and other suborbital tourist vehicles that begin regular service in 2008.

In 2008 at least a hundred thousand people attend the annual X PRIZE Cup to observe the rocket competitions, exhibitions, and the Rocket Racing League event.

Cosmos 1 finally becomes the first solar sail spacecraft to travel in space successfully.

Space Adventures continues to fly one to two space tourists to the ISS each year.

NASA finally agrees to the first pure data purchase contract for a science mission. This will involve a company like SpaceDev, that builds and flies a spacecraft on its own to carry out a science mission such as prospecting a near earth asteroid. NASA will simply pay for the data returned and will have no involvement with the details of the spacecraft or how the mission is carried out.

 

2009-2010

By 2009, one of the major aerospace companies becomes a close partner with SpaceX and supports the Falcon 9, which will be the lowest priced launch vehicle in the world for large payloads.

Due to COTS funding, which violates the no "government development funding" restriction, none of the most viable companies can compete for the America's Space Prize. So the contest will either be withdrawn or modified to allow for some degree of government funding. If the latter, then at least two teams will be strong candidates for the prize and will make strong efforts to achieve the main goals of the contest before the deadline.

In 2010 Blue Origin successfully launches a fully reusable two-stage vertical-take-off-and landing system capable of taking a crew of two and a small payload to orbit.

A new administration reorients the Moon/Mars Exploration program towards low cost systems and towards heavy involvement of innovative entrepreneurial companies. NASA cancels the CEV and instead contracts with the several private firms for its space transport requirements.

By 2010 vehicles developed for the COTS ISS resupply program begin regular crew and cargo service to the ISS and to a Bigelow habitat in equatorial orbit.

Bigelow Aerospace launches a crew to the full scale Nautilus module in 2010. (Spaceflight Now article.)

By 2010, suborbital transportation grows into ~$100M to $200M industry by flying 1000-2000 space tourists per year and by serving the other suborbital markets listed above. Launch services in several countries become available.

A private firm lands a rover on one of the lunar poles and begins exploration for ice deposits.

The German led AMSAT P5A mission succeeds in sending in placing a spacecraft in orbit around Mars in 2009. (See also Go-Mars.de)

Orbital Recovery launches the first comsat rescue mission in 2009.

 

2011-2012

Bigleow begins development of an earth orbit to lunar transport vehicle - the Nautilus Moon Cruiser - based on its inflatable structures technology.

The Russian Kliper flies unmanned. ESA collaborates with Russia on the project.

 

Inspired by the success of the commercial space companies and the falling price of access to LEO, several wealthy associations and private organizations of diverse ideologies and philosophies come into being with the goal of building a large scale habitat in orbit or on the Moon with hundreds of residents by 2025.

A wealthy country without a space program of its own, decides to employ a Russian firm to implement the CSI Lunar Express method to fly two of its citizens around the Moon by 2015.

2012-2014

Orbital tourism becomes practical when trips to the Bigelow Aerospace space hotel become available.

The Russian Kliper flies a crew to the ISS.

A private company establishes an orbiting fuel depot. Cargo flights from earth bring fuel to the depot, which in turn supplies fuel to various orbiting spacecraft and Earth-to-Moon transports.

By 2014 NASA lands a crew on the Moon using a space transport system significantly different from that described in NASA's original Exploration Architecture released in 2005.

Several hundred customers sign up at 1 million dollars per seat for a trip to the Bigelow hotel.

Products made on the private space stations, such as exotic glass and metallic artworks, begin selling on earth.

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