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Climbing a Commercial Stairway to Space:
A Plausible Timeline?
Version 2009

by Clark S. Lindsey
February 2, 2009


Genesis II in orbit
Credits: SpaceX

A Falcon 9 was fully integrated for the first time on Dec. 30, 2008 at Cape
Canaveral. The first Falcon 9 launch is expected in the summer of 2009.

As with the previous Commercial Stairway to Space Timelines for 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, and 2003, I will lay out here what I considered a realistic set of milestones that would lead to a scenario in which private, commercial activity dominates human spaceflight** activity by 2015 or so.

In Table 1 below I provide a detailed comparison of what happened in 2008 versus my expectations in January 2008. Then Table 2 presents my current expectations for developments in commercial spaceflight through 2020. I begin first with a general discussion of the state of commercial spaceflight and where I think it is going.

2008 was a Good Year

As in previous years, some predictions for 2008 came true and others did not. In my latest annual review - NewSpace in 2008: Ups and Downs in entrepreneurial spaceflight - I presented lots of evidence that the private NewSpace entrepreneurial space industry made significant progress up the commercial space stairway in 2008. Particular highlights included the first successful launch of the SpaceX Falcon 1 rocket, the winning of the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge Level I competition by Armadillo Aerospace, roll-out of the White Knight Two, and the first public exhibition flights of the XCOR's rocket racer.

Some of the organizations that were highlighted in previous years, such as Bigelow Aerospace and Blue Origin, were relatively quiet in 2008. This does not mean they became inactive. Quite the contrary. They simply are staying out of the media spotlight while concentrating on hardware development.

In 2008 we again did not see any commercial rocket transports carrying people reach space. As discussed last year, for various reasons the quick development of suborbital space tourism expected after the X PRIZE success by SpaceShipOne in October of 2004 has not happened. However, in 2008 there was considerable progress by several companies in this area.

Needed: Good Execution and a Bit of Luck

2015 is just six years away. Is it really possible that private, commercial organizations could dominates human spaceflight activity by then? Yes, but we need for everybody to execute successfully both in vehicle development and business plans. Plus we need some luck with hardware development, flight successes, the overall economy, etc.

I would consider the following scenario to be a minimal threshold definition for "domination" of spaceflight activity by commercial firms by 2015:

  1. At least one suborbital spaceflight firm is making money at flying people to 100km and back. (I expect there will be several but, of course, one is the minimum.)

  2. SpaceX succeeds at flying the Falcon 9/Dragon and begins providing cargo service to the ISS by late 2010.

  3. This in turn provides SpaceX the momentum to move quickly to crew operations with the Falcon 9. Obtaining the COTS D funding from NASA for crew capability would accelerate this and allow for crew flights by the end of 2012. However, the company could still achieve crew capability with only internal funding, but this would probably take till at least 2014.

  4. Bigelow files the Sundancer by 2011 and the large Nautilus habitats by 2014. To support these facilities, they contract with SpaceX for cargo and crew delivery.

In such a scenario, we would have by 2015 several hundred people flying to 100km per year on private suborbital space transports and several dozen to orbit per year on Falcon 9. That would dwarf the number of people flying annually on government vehicles to space.

Parts 1 and 4 of the scenario look quite solid. There are several suborbital vehicles in development and they are making solid progress. Test flights will start late this year for some of the firms and all will be test flying in 2010 There could easily be three or four fully reusable, fast turnaround vehicles flying with paying passengers to 100 km routinely by 2011.

Bigelow Aerospace has proven with the two Genesis spacecraft that it is quite capable of building sophisticated hardware and carrying out complex launch and orbital operations. So placing Sundancer and Nautilus habitats successfully in orbit has a high probability of success.

Parts 2 and 3 are the tricky ones. Successful execution of F9/Dragon development project would provide the first real step towards lower cost human spaceflight since the 1960s.

It will be great if other firms, such as the suborbital guys, come forth with orbital systems on this time scale. The above scenario is just a straightforward extrapolation of what is happening at the moment. It's quite possible other players will become involved.

Falcon 9/Dragon - The Key

At the moment development of the Falcon 9/Dragon looks very promising. Many common components have been tested in flight on the Falcon I. The Merlin engine, in particular, performed well on flights 2-4. The Merlin has also been tested extensively in ground tests and the 9-engine full flight duration test went well. SpaceX is meeting its COTS milestones for the F9/Dragon. This includes the passing of several design reviews by outside experts. The assembly and raising to vertical of a F9 on the pad at Cape Canaveral in late 2008 was impressive.

On the other hand, no one should be shocked if there is one or more failures or partial failures (e.g. the payload does not reach the correct orbit) with the first Falcon 9 vehicles. The failures of the launches of the first three Falcon I vehicles attest to the difficulties of moving a totally new vehicle into operation. Rockets are complex conglomerations of a large number of subsystems and many of these subsystems can cause the whole vehicle to fail if they have a problem. Furthermore, with the Falcon 9 type of architecture, a launch is either a success or a failure; there is no gradual expansion of the performance envelope with test flights.

We can hope that the Falcon I has successfully served its role as pathfinder for the company's larger vehicle, which was always the primary goal. The company started in late 2002 with zero employees and developed the Falcon I with no legacy hardware and with no major aerospace partner. The company has learned lots of lessons from the Falcon I program and this should help in at least shortening the Falcon 9 learning curve.

Dark Financial Clouds

In the first Timeline that I create in late 2002, I offered a list of potential roadblocks to commercial spaceflight development. The first in the list was the following:

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 to disappear.

So far, the current steep economic downturn has not significantly impacted the major NewSpace projects, at least from what is visible publicly. However, if the recession gets deeper and lasts longer than expected, then all the NewSpace projects will be affected negatively to various degrees. Funding may decrease and the markets that they plan to serve will shrink. We can hope that by the time these projects open up for business in 2010-2011, economic growth will have resumed and that funding and markets will become robust.

This Prediction Stuff

The timeline exercise here is partly for fun. The future has an annoying tendency to unfold in ways we do not expect. So any specific predictions must be taken with a grain of salt. However, these timelines can serve as a useful measuring stick for progress towards the ultimate goal of large scale commercial human spaceflight.

I should point out that I deal almost entirely with predictions for successful developments. It is trivial to predict that this or that space project will fail. There are a million ways for a new business of any kind to go off the road, and even more for a new space business. There are only a few routes to success and they are difficult to follow. Predicting losers in the commercial space race is no more fun or informative than predicting horses to lose at the racetrack. I'm much more interested in the details of how and why space projects succeed or fail. Many people seem to think there is some sort of profound physics or economic barrier to low cost spaceflight. However, so far, those ventures that have failed have done so because of mundane reasons usually involving a failure to raise enough capital.

Another aspect of technological prediction that I've noticed over my lifetime is that by the time a major advance is achieved, it is often taken for granted and not considered a big deal. This can happen because the developments occurred incrementally over a long time period. For example, the nearly instantaneous Google search of an gigantic database of information gathered continually worldwide would have seemed a sci-fi miracle in 1990. However, it is considered no big deal today after the public has experienced 15 years or so of steady Internet advances.

I've seen a similar response to commercial space developments. For example, space tourism has gone from a wild fantasy in 1999 to a situation today in which "personal spaceflight participants" are going yearly to the ISS and several hundred million dollars of investment has been committed to suborbital space tourism ventures.

Similarly, steady incremental advances towards commercial human spaceflight have transformed it from a fantasy to a near certainty. A private company has two prototype inflatable habitats in orbit and NASA just contracted for commercial cargo delivery service to the ISS. At the rate that things are going, I wouldn't be at all surprised to find that by 2020 it will be considered routine for most space travelers to get to orbit on commercial vehicles.


Timelines - Old and New

Armadillo Mod at 2008 NG-LLC
Armadillo Aerospace's Mod vehicle won the 2008 Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge.
Many more pictures and videos from the event are available on this Armadillo page.

The first table focuses on the specifics in the predicted 2008 timeline versus what actually happened. The second table lays out a revised timeline starting from 2009. As always, since lowering the cost of transport from earth to orbit is crucial to all the important goals in space, that category is given the greatest emphasis here. See the 2004 discussion of factors that could delay or accelerate the scenario laid out here.

Table 1: The Private Space Development Timeline - Review of 2008
(Compare Timeline - 2008)
Predictions for 2008-2009 January 2009 Status Other Private Space Developments

Access to Space

* SpaceX will carry out the first test flight of the Falcon 9/Dragon system in late 2008 or early 2009. It will then complete by 2010 the three demonstration flights required under the COTs Phase 1 agreement.


* Falcon 1 will successfully carry out its first operational flight in the spring of 2008 and take several other payloads to space by the end of 2009.



* In late 2008 SpaceX will win a ISS resupply contract starting in 2010.


* The winner of the second round COTS agreements will involve a team with one of the major aerospace companies supplying the vehicle. They will fly for the first time in early 2009.

* The new administration in 2009 will make major changes to NASA's exploration architecture. The Ares V will be canceled and Ares 1/Orion might be as well, though there will be big political fight over this. If the Falcon 9 flights are successful, this will undercut support for Ares 1.

* Besides Virgin Galactic/Scaled with the SpaceShipTwo, there will be at least two other companies test flying vehicles to 100 km by the summer of 2009. I expect Blue Origin and XCOR to be among these companies.



* In the first year of operation, starting late 2009 or early 2010, Virgin Galactic and other suborbital space tourist companies will take in ~$30M to $50M in revenue by flying a few hundred space tourists. There will be steady growth in revenue and the number of passengers in subsequent years.

* Other suborbital markets such as science and educational payloads and high altitude photography will also grow.




* EADS begins development of its rocketplane by 2009. At least one of the other large mainstream aerospace companies announces plans to develop a low cost space transport system to go after space tourism, and the Bigelow habitats markets.


* There will be winners in both the Lunar Lander and Beamed Power Centennial Challenges in 2008.

* The V-Prize competition for point-to-point spaceflight demonstration between Virginia and Europe opens in 2009 with a four year time limit.

 

Access to Space

* SpaceX made significant progress with the F9/Dragon including a full duration firing of the 9 engine first stage. They assembled and raised a F9 at their pad at Cape Canaveral. All the COTS milestones for the year were met. First flight is now expected in the summer of 2009.

* The third Falcon 1 launch in August failed during staging due to a small timing mistake. The company quickly mounted the fourth launch attempt and succeeded in reaching space on Sept.28th.


* SpaceX won a $1.6B NASA Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract on Dec. 23th.

* Orbital Sciences by itself won the second round COTS agreement (i.e. took over the contact lost by Rocketplane Kistler when it failed to raise sufficient private capital).


* Mike Griffin has left NASA. There are rumors of possible changes to the Constellation architecture in 2009 but nothing has been decided as of Jan. 2009.

 

* There is a possibility of SS2 rocket flight tests by end of 2009. Armadillo is expected to start higher altitude flights in early 2009 (with unmanned vehicles) and possibly reach space by the end of the year. XCOR will not begin flights of Lynx till 2010. No public info about Blue Origin flight test plans.

* Virgin Galactic claims to have roughly 300 tickets sold and several hundred more people committed to buying tickets once the SS2 is flying. XCOR had about 2 dozen ticket reservations with deposits by Dec. 2008. Flights with paying passengers will probably not start, however, till late 2010 or early 2011.

* NASA put out a request for proposals for suborbital science experiments with crewed rocket vehicles. A well attended workshop was held at the end of the year in San Francisco that brought vehicle builders and scientists together to exchange ideas.

* As of January 2009, EADS has not raised the funding to begin development of their rocketplane. No other company has announced development of a low cost space transport system.




* Armadillo won the Level 1 LLC in Oct. 2008. The Beamed Power Challenge was delayed till 2009.

* The V-Prize project seems to have gone defunct.

Other Developments

* At least one, maybe two, Google Lunar X Prize competitors will make an attempt to land a rover on the Moon in July 2009 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing. The prize will be won by either one of these teams or by another before the contest deadline in 2012.

More teams joined the competition and several teams showed progress but it appears unlikely that any team will attempt a launch before 2010 at the earliest.

* The German led AMSAT P5A mission will send a spacecraft in orbit around Mars in 2009. (See also Go-Mars.de)

Appears to be delayed till 2011.

* Bigelow announces agreements in 2008 with at least one company to provide a set of flights to the company's space habitats starting in the 2010-2011 time frame.

Bigelow did not announce any such agreement in 2008.

* Celestis/Space Services space burial service expands its business significantly as more commercial flights become available to it.

Cremains on the third Falcon 1 launch failed to reach orbit, though it did reach space altitudes. More opportunities for flights will be available in 2009.

* Rocket Racing League begins exhibitions in 2008 and starts the racing circuit in late 2008 or early 2009.

First racer demos were carried out by XCOR at Oshkosh in Aug. 2008. RRL, however, switched its vehicle contract to Armadillo. RRL promises first multi-vehicle exhibitions in 2009. Races in 2010.

* Orbital Outfitters completes development of its first generation of spacesuits for commercial spaceflight operations and begins to sell/lease them to the companies.

Orbital Outfitters is still waiting for the suborbital spaceflight vehicles to start flying. In the meantime, it has other projects such as a contract with NASA, along with two partners, to develop an advanced space suit concept.

* The development of commercial spaceports in New Mexico, Virginia and Sweden get well underway by 2009.

The NM spaceport got well underway with a long term lease agreement with Virgin Galactic, first construction is underway, etc. Virginia commercial spaceport got a boost when Orbital Sciences decided to base operations for its Taurus II vehicle there when it starts to resupply the ISS. Development continued on the Sweden spaceport project.


XCOR Lyxnx suborbital spaceplane

The XCOR Lynx rocketplane began development in 2008
and first test flights are expected in 2010.

Table 2: The Private Space Development Timeline - Version 2009

Period

Access to Space Other Private Space Developments
2009

SpaceX will carry out the first test flight of the Falcon 9/Dragon system in the summer of 2009. It will then complete by 2010 the three demonstration flights required under the Cots Phase 1 agreement.

Falcon 1 will successfully carry out its second operational flight in the spring of 2009 and take other payloads to space by the end of 2009.

The new administration in 2009 will make major changes to NASA's exploration architecture. The Ares V will be canceled and Ares 1/Orion might be as well, though there will be big political fight over this. If the Falcon 9 flights are successful, this will undercut support for Ares 1.

Virgin Galactic/Scaled will begin drop tests of SpaceShipTwo from the WhiteKnightTwo in the summer of 2009. First rocket powered flights may start by end of 2009. Armadillo will carry out a high altitude program in 2009 with its unmanned vehicles and reach space by the end of the year. XCOR Lynx development will continue towards a roll out in early 2010. I expect Blue Origin and XCOR to be among these companies.

Armadillo Aerospace will begin high altitude flights with its unmanned vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) vehicles in early 2009 and gradually reach up to 100km by the end of the year.

NASA's plans for science and educational payloads on reusable suborbital space vehicles will develop further in 2009.

In 2009 there will be a winner of the Level II in the Lunar Lander Challenge and also a winner of the second place purse for the Level I. The Beamed Power/Tether Strength Centennial Challenges will also take place in 2009 and there will be a winner in the Beamed Power competition.

Some of the Google Lunar X Prize competitors will make announcements regarding arrangements for their launch vehicles. The prize will be won before the contest deadline in 2012.

Bigelow announces agreements in 2009 with at least one company to provide a set of flights to the company's space habitats starting in the 2010-2011 time frame.

Celestis/Space Services space burial service expands its business significantly as more commercial flights become available to it.

Rocket Racing League will carry out multi-vehicle exhibitions in 2009. The racing circuit will get underway in 2010.

Orbital Outfitters completes development of its first generation of spacesuits for commercial spaceflight operations and begins to sell/lease them to the companies.

New Mexico spaceport will make significant construction progress in 2009.

2010-2011

In late 2010, the Falcon 9/Dragon makes its first cargo flight to the ISS. COTS-D funding will allow for crew operations to begin by late 2011 or early 2012.

Bigelow 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 will start launching small expendable second stages to take small payloads to orbit by late 2010.

By 2011 Armadillo gets a small payload to space using its modular vehicle system.

In the first year of operation, starting late 2010 or early 2009, Virgin Galactic and other suborbital space tourist companies will take in ~$30M to $50M in revenue by flying a few hundred space tourists. There will be steady growth in revenue and the number of passengers in subsequent years.

In 2011 Bigelow Aerospace launches the Sundancer space habitat, which can hold a crew of three.

Orbital Satellite Services launches the first comsat rescue mission in 2011.

A 3 person crew is delivered to the Bigelow Sundancer module by the end of 2011 by SpaceX.

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.

The German led AMSAT P5A mission will send a spacecraft in orbit around Mars in 2011. (See also Go-Mars.de)

2012-2014

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. The time and effort involved in the return and preparation for the next flight approach that of "refuel-and-fly" operations for airliners.

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.

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.

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.

2015-2020

By 2015, Bigelow has 3 complexes in orbit, each consisting of at least two of the big BA-330 modules. Long term contracts with one, possibly two, launch companies, provides for a flight with crew, passengers, and cargo to each station at least once a month.

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.

Several thousand people per year are flying on suborbital spaceflights. Prices have dropped to a few tens of thousand of dollars range.

Suborbital spaceflight systems will have achieved a reputation as highly reliable and safe.

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 human mission to the surface of the Moon.

The Bigelow module complexes begin to form the nuclei of genuine long term space settlements.

Increasing amounts of material shielding (e.g. via water and fuel tanks plus surplus equipment) provide sufficient radiation protection for safe, long term residence.

Although the early habitats will probably not rotate to provide spin gravity, centrifuge systems (like the circular track in the 2001 Discovery vehicle) allows for extended exercise at a high fraction of a G to prevent microgravity health problems.

An "in-space" economy begins to develop as people pursue specialized jobs such as repair services, retail sales, and food production from greenhouse gardening (as in the successful Antarctic base model).

Individuals involved in the production of high value, "zero-mass" products, such as software and financial analysis, that can be sold back to earth begin to live and work on the complexes and eventually start to call them home.

Some non-zero mass products made on the private space stations, such as exotic glass and metallic artworks, begin selling on earth.

** Note: I often use just the word spaceflight as shorthand for human spaceflight. So with commercial spaceflight I'm referring to space tourism (both orbital and suborbital), Bigelow habitats, and other human related space activities involving private companies and organizations while with the term commercial space I'm adding in all the other commercial activity like communication satellites, remote sensing, GPS, etc.

Google Lunar X Prize

 

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