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Climbing a Commercial Stairway to Space:
A Plausible Timeline?
Vers. 2007

by Clark S. Lindsey
January 29, 2007

Genesis 1 in orbit
Credits: Bigelow Aerospace
The successful orbiting of the Bigelow Aerospace Genesis I module
was the most significant event in commercial spaceflight during 2006.

In the previous Commercial Stairway to Space Timelines for 2006, 2005, and 2004, I laid out what I considered a realistic set of milestones that would lead to a scenario in which private, commercial activity dominates human spaceflight activity by the middle of the next decade. So far the private spaceflight industry has shown solid progress up that path. A number of projects have hardware in or near operation and well over a billion dollars of investment is currently committed to new manned space transport vehicles, commercial spaceports, space habitats, and related infrastructure projects.

Below I first review what actually happened in 2006 versus my expectations. As in previous years, some predictions came about and others did not. For example, the first flight of the SpaceX Falcon 1 failed shortly after launch and no new private suborbital vehicles broke the 100 km borderline to space. On the other hand, the orbiting of the Genesis I space habitat from Bigelow Aerospace was a huge success and accelerated the company's plans for space habitat development.

I'll note that Bigelow Aerospace illustrates the difficulty in predicting the course of space development. Five or so years ago it would have seemed quite preposterous to predict that a privately financed space hotel program would get into orbit before the appearance of low cost space transports. Yet it looks quite possible that a Sundancer will arrive in orbit as early as 2009 and wait there for perhaps a year or two before visitors start arriving to take advantage of its capabilities.


Credits: Blue Origin
Blue Origin's Goddard prototype suborbital space vehicle
during its first flight in November 2006.

As illustrated by Robert Bigelow's steady support for his projects, the wealth of space angel investors continues to be the primary fuel propelling the entrepreneurial space movement forward. However, in 2006 we saw NASA money via the COTS and Centennial Challenges programs also enter into the picture. In the coming years we may finally see institutional investment (e.g. venture capital funds) enter the private spaceflight industry if the market for space tourism proves to be viable. The COTS contractors may also obtain such funding if the NASA commitment to buying cargo delivery services is deemed to be solid and secure. (I should point out that Spacehab got all private funding for its Shuttle cargo modules back in the early 1990s. Similarly, Orbital Sciences funded the Pegasus vehicle privately.)

A wild card entered the NewSpace game in the past year. It's possible that one or more of the large Old Space mainstream aerospace companies may become a serious participant in commercial human spaceflight development. For example, it was a surprise to me and other observers of the NewSpace arena when Bigelow and Lockheed-Martin announced a joint study into the use of the Atlas V for delivery of passengers to Bigelow orbital habitats. It's quite conceivable in the coming years we will see one of the giants collaborate with an entrepreneurial company developing an orbital or suborbital vehicle. It's perhaps useful to remember that in the early days of the microcomputer there was lots of talk about the startups surpassing the old mainframe dinosaur companies but it was IBM's entry into the field, in collaboration with a tiny unknown software company called Microsoft, that greatly accelerated the spread of personal computers.

Anousheh Ansari
Credits: anoushehansari.com
In October 2006 Anousheh Ansari became the fourth
"personal spaceflight participant" to go to the ISS.

As I indicated in the previous timelines, my intention is not really to predict in detail what will happen. That is obviously impossible, but rather simply to highlight the existence of a broad and substantial movement towards private spaceflight. A given company might fail to achieve its publicized goals, such as, say, the development of a suborbital passenger vehicle, but there remain other companies that will eventually reach that same goal. There is a growing robustness and vitality in the NewSpace industry that will allow it to tolerate some failures while maintaining its overall momentum.

XCOR LOX/Methane engine test
Credits Mike Massee / XCOR
XCOR in December 2006 tested a LOX/Methane engine it built
as a subcontractor to ATK under a NASA contract.

Furthermore, I continue to emphasize that these commercial spaceflight projects do not violate any laws of physics or economics. The remarkable fact is that we have entered a period in which human spaceflight development outside of government is not only feasible but is actually happening and at a quickening pace.


Timelines - Old and New

Armadillo Pixel in flight at X Prize Cup 2007
Armadillo Aerospace's Pixel in flight at the 2006 X Prize Cup.
Pixel did not win the Lunar Lander Challenge but it did fly four
times successfully within a time span of three days (twice, in
fact, on one day), illustrating again that rocket vehicles can fly
repeatedly and with fast turnaround.

This first table reviews progress since the first timeline was created. The second table below 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 2006
(Compare Timeline - 2006)
Predictions for 2006 January 2007 Status More Developments
in 2006

Access to Space

  • 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 X Prize 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.


Other Developments

  • 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.

Access to Space

  • There were no private RLV flights to 100km in 2006 but several companies, such as Blue Origin, and Rocketplane, TGV Rockets, Scaled Composites, etc. continued vigorous development programs. Armadillo Aerospace did not win the Lunar Lander Challenge but did fly its rocket powered VTOL vehicle four times within 3 days at the X PRIZE Cup. Virgin Galactic unveiled a model of the interior of the SpaceShipTwo. Blue Origin began low altitude test flights of its Goddard prototype vehicle.

  • The first Falcon 1 fell back into the water soon after launch due to a fire caused by a leak in an engine fuel line. This led to a premature cut off of the engine. The vehicle and its launch procedures have been significantly upgraded and another launch attempt will occur in early 2007.

  • The Rocket Racing League did not hold any demo races in 2006 but there was progress with the development of the vehicle and in the introduction of three rocket teams.

  • The X PRIZE Cup was significantly enhanced over the 2005 event. There were many more rocket launches and it included the Lunar Lander and Space Elevator challenge competitions. See the review here.

  • SpaceX and Rocketplane Kistler won the COTS contracts, which will total $500M by 2010 if they meet their milestones. The companies are to demonstrate a capability to deliver cargo to the ISS. However, both companies plan crew capability as well. Other companies can compete for the phase 2 contracts in 2010 for regular cargo deliveries to the ISS.

  • The flight of the first UP Aerospace SpaceLoft vehicle fell far short of the the intended altitude due to a malfunction. The company did have a full manifest of commercial items on board and they report that sales for future flights are doing well. Beyond-Earth also carried out medium altitude flights with commercial payloads aboard. Masten Space Systems, which plans to pursue this type of market, reported progress with development of its reusable launch vehicle.

  • The Lunar Lander Challenge competition event was held for the first time at the XP Cup. Three teams registered but only Armadillo Aerospace had a vehicle ready to compete. AA did not win the event but did demonstrate reusability and fast turnaround with 4 flights within 3 days. See details and pictures in the X Prize Cup review.

Other Developments

  • Bigelow launched the Genesis 1 and it worked far better than expected. The company decided to accelerate plans for larger habitats as a result.


  • Market development for suborbital spaceflight seems to be moving along. Virgin Galactic and other suborbital space tourism companies indicated they now have a significant number of deposits and full payments for tickets. VG says their flights are sold out for the first couple of years of operation.







  • ZERO-G seems to be doing very well. They have now bought a plane rather than leasing one and they began flights from the Shuttle runway at KSC.

  • SpaceShot opened for business and is planning some new variations on its skill game offerings.




  • Enomoto's ride was canceled due to health problems. In his place Anousheh Ansari flew instead. Her flight got lots of positive publicity worldwide.

  • Plans for space burial continue to develop but the lack of flight opportunities in 2006 was a setback.

 

 

  • Bigelow Aerospace and Lockheed-Martin announced an agreement to study the use of the Atlas V to provide crew and passenger service to Bigelow Habitats.

  • The Spaceport America project in New Mexico continued to develop. Several commercial spaceport projects in the US, Canada, Singapore and elsewhere were introduced, though how many will ever get past the planning stage isn't known yet.

  • AirLaunch LLC continued to progress through the milestones required by its DARPA contract for development of an unmanned orbital launch system.

  • Jim Benson left SpaceDev to start Benson Space, which will develop and market the Dream Chaser vehicle (based on the NASA HL-20 design). However, the company will contract with SpaceDev to build the vehicle.

  • PlanetSpace did not win a COTS contract but did announce its intention to continue development of the Silver Dart (based on the FDL-7 glider design from the 1960s) and compete for the second phase COTS contracts. They also announced plans for suborbital space tourist flights.

  • XCOR won a NASA contract along with ATK to develop LOX/Methane rocket engines. A prototype engine was test fired in December. XCOR also continued development of the Rocket Racing vehicle. The company continued work on its Xerus suborbital space vehicle.

  • Garvey Space, in collaboration with a group at Cal State Long Beach and using a grant from the military, test flew a very low cost reusable booster to low altitude. The plan is for incremental development leading to a vehicle capable of placing a nanosat in LEO.

  • Infrastructure companies providing supports services for equipment of the space tourist industry began to appear. For example, Orbital Outfitters announced that it will offer low cost pressure suits for suborbital passenger spaceflights.

  • In December of 2006 the FAA Commercial Space Transportation office released its rules regulating private human spaceflight.

 

 

 

Rocket Racer at XP Cup
The first Rocket Racer was unveiled during the 2006 X Prize Cup.
Racing Racing League events will start in 2007. Velocity Aircraft supplied the
airframe and XCOR built the engine (XR-4K14, 1,500 lbf LOX/kerosene) and
assembled the vehicle.

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. 2007

Period

Access to Space Other Private Space Developments
2007-2008

SpaceX will carry out two to three launches of the Falcon 1 in 2007.

SpaceX also will begin Falcon 9 booster static fire tests in early 2007. First launches will occur in 2008. The three COTS demonstration flights should start by late 2008 or early 2009.

Rocketplane Kistler begins test flights of the K-1 vehicle in 2008.

Lockheed-Martin will announce plans either to develop the Atlas V for passenger use (see Bigelow study) or to become a close partner with one of the NewSpace companies developing an RLV. One or more of the other major aerospace corporations will follow suit and also partner or buy out a NewSpace firm.

Suborbital RLVs:

Mojave Aerospace Ventures (Burt Rutan's firm) will roll out the SpaceShip 2 and White Knight 2 vehicles in late 2007 and begin test flights in 2008. Virgin Galactic will start passenger flights in late 2008 or early 2009.

Rocketplane postponed its first commercial passenger suborbital flight to 2009 due to the effort put into the COTS K-1 project. Test flights should begin in 2008.

XCOR is working on the Xerus, which carries one passenger, as funding and time permit. The company has not said much else but I'm guessing it could fly by 2008.

Blue Origin will fly its unmanned prototypes frequently (couple of times a month at least) to increasing altitudes during this period. The company says it aims for commercial passenger suborbital flights in 2010.

Armadillo Aerospace will continue its build a little - fly a little approach, steadily increasing the capability of its VTOL vehicles. I expect they will reach 100 km before 2009. They are favorites to win both levels of the Lunar Lander Challenge at the 2007 X PRIZE Cup.

Masten-Space Systems will do test flights of its VTOL prototypes in 2007. If they obtain funding, they could have a high altitude vehicle by 2008.

TGV- Rockets has carried out advanced design reviews for its Michelle vehicle. If funding available, they could fly by 2009.

Benson Space says they will begin passenger service with Dream Chaser by 2009. So test flights should begin in 2008.

Suborbital RLVs outside the US:

  • UK
    • Starchaser - Thunderbird development continues towards the goal of passenger flights in 2009.
  • Canada:
    • PlanetSpace - The company has not given a clear picture of its hardware status but has indicated suborbital flights of its Canadian Arrow and/or Silver Dart systems could begin during the 2008-2009 time frame.
    • Da Vinci - Tests of its new XF1 vehicle are supposed to start in 2007.
  • Romania
    • Arca Space - test flights of the full Stabilo vehicle system will begin in 2007.
  • Russia
    • Explorer - this space tourist vehicle, financed and run by a collaboration of Russian and American companies, including Space Adventures, should be flying in the 2008 time frame.
  • South Korea
    • C&Space - its LOX/Methane engine has reached an advanced testing stage. The company has a US partner to design a complete vehicle but no time table has been released.

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

The Lunar Lander Challenges (both levels 1 and 2) will be won at the X PRIZE Cup in 2007.

AirLaunch LLC places a small payload into orbit on the first demo flight of its QuickReach vehicle in 2008.

  • Bigelow Aerospace will launch the second Genesis prototype space habitat module in early 2007. If that is a success, the company has indicated that it will lay out a more detailed development plan and schedule for its next generation of space habitats.

  • Bigelow Aerospace will announce by the end of 2008 that it has a contract with at least one country, and probably several, for the rental of space and time on on of the company's space habitats in the 2010-2015 time frame. These will be countries with no previous human spaceflight programs. Transportation arrangements for taking these astronauts to the habitats will be made with commercial space transport companies.

  • By the end of 2007, I expect that the total number of people who have placed deposits or paid the full amount for tickets to fly on suborbital tourist vehicles will be in the 500 to 1000 range.

  • Test flights of suborbital spaceflight vehicles will become a common occurrence during 2008.

  • I expect the first paid passenger flight to 100km will take place by late 2008 or early 2009.

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

  • The Rocket Racing League will begin demonstration events in 2007 and will increase the number of racing teams to 5 or 6 from the current three. The racing circuit will be in full swing in 2008. They will obtain a major sponsor similar to Red Bull's sponsorship of air racing.

  • Space Adventures continues to fly one space tourists to the ISS each year, restricted by the availability of only one seat per year on the Soyuz flights.

  • Flying small payloads consisting of science experiments, student projects, memorabilia, etc. on very low cost suborbital rockets will become increasingly popular. The refurbishable sounding rocket type of vehicles from companies like UP Aerospace and Beyond-Earth Enterprises will dominate until unmanned RLVs with controlled landings such as the XA-1.0 from Masten Space Systems begin to fly. The sounding rocket guys will respond by going to much higher altitudes.

  • More support services and products for space tourism and NewSpace activities begin to appear. For example, training facilities for pilots and support staff for space tourist vehicles will begin to open.

  • ZERO-G starts to operate in several cities and also finally gets a contract with NASA to provide flights to carry out astronaut training, microgravity research, etc.

 

2009-2010

SpaceX with its Falcon 9/Dragon system and Rocketplane Kistler with its K-1 RLV will complete by 2010 their successful series of demonstration flights under their COTs Phase 1 contracts. They each win Phase II contracts to deliver cargo to the ISS.

The COTS successes lead to major changes in NASA's exploration architecture. Development of the Ares vehicles is halted and instead launch of the lunar exploration systems will be carried out by commercial space transport companies. The new architecture will rely on in space assembly of smaller components and the use of dry launch in which vehicles obtain fuel from orbital fuel storage systems.

One or more of the suborbital RLV developers start launching small expendable second stages to take small payloads to orbit.

By 2010, suborbital transportation grows into ~$100M to $200M industry by flying 1000-2000 space tourists per year and by serving other suborbital markets such as science and educational payloads and high altitude photography. Launch services in several countries become available.

One of the large mainstream aerospace companies announces plans to develop a low cost space transport system to go after space tourism, Bigelow, and ISS resupply markets.

Another large company announces that it is buying one of the suborbital RLV firms.

By 2010 Bigelow Aerospace launches the Sundancer space habitat, which can hold a crew of three.

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.

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.

2011-2012

By 2012 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.

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

One or more of the suborbital RLV developers such as Blue Origin successfully launches a fully reusable two-stage system capable of taking a crew of two and/or a small payload to orbit.

A 3 person crew is delivered to the Bigelow Sundancer module by 2011 by SpaceX or Kistler.

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 private firm lands a rover on one of the lunar poles and begins exploration for ice deposits and sells access to real-time video to on line users.

2012-2014

A wealthy country without a space program of its own, announces plans to use the CSI Lunar Express method to fly two of its citizens around the Moon by 2015.

US Air Force announces plans to discontinue use of the EELVs (Delta IV and Atlas V) in favor of much lower cost commercial space transport services from companies like SpaceX and RpK.

The large Bigelow BA-330 module is delivered to orbit. Bigelow begins to rent out time and module space to various countries that have formed new human spaceflight programs. Astronauts from these countries are delivered to the Bigelow modules via commercial space transport.

2015-2020

Orbital tourism expands significantly when trips to the Bigelow Aerospace space hotel become available via commercial services that offer transport ticket prices in the $2M-$4M range.

A private company establishes an orbiting fuel depot adjacent to a Bigelow space habitat. Cargo flights from earth bring fuel to the depot, which in turn supplies fuel to various orbiting spacecraft and Earth-to-Moon transports. A crew maintains the depot and monitors propellant transfers. The site becomes essentially the first commercial space settlement.

A private consortium funds construction of a Nautilus Moon Cruiser for a lunar fly-around service.

A private group also announces plans to pursue a private mission to the surface of the Moon.

A station with multiple BA-330 modules is assembled. One to two flights per month bring crew and cargo to the station.


The fuel depot station includes a Bigelow module dedicated to producing food from greenhouse gardening similar to the successful Antarctic base model. The inhabitants of that module sell food to the crews of the other modules and the ISS, initiating the first in-space commerce.

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

Marth Stewart weightless
Credits: www.marthastewart.com
Martha Stewart took a ride on a Zero-G parabolic flyer and later lauded
the experience on her TV show and sponsored a contest to win a ride.
To her right in the photo is her friend Charles Simonyi who is on track
to visit the ISS in March 2007.
Links of Interest:

 

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