As with the previous Commercial Stairway to Space Timelines
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
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.
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.
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,
I would consider the following scenario to be a minimal threshold
definition for "domination" of spaceflight activity by
commercial firms by 2015:
- 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.)
- SpaceX succeeds at flying the Falcon 9/Dragon and begins providing
cargo service to the ISS by late 2010.
- 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.
- 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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Services space burial service expands its business significantly
as more commercial flights become available to it.
Racing League will carry out multi-vehicle exhibitions
in 2009. The racing circuit will get underway in 2010.
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 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
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.
Satellite Services launches the first comsat rescue mission
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)
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
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.
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
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
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
** 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.