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Climbing a Commercial Stairway to Space:
A Plausible Timeline?

by Clark S. Lindsey
Version 1:
Created Dec.27, 2002
Modified Dec.31.03

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<<== Can we go from this level of technology
currently in development at small private companies -
sub-orbital vehicle R&D (e.g. Armadillo &  XCOR)
and unmanned orbital TSTO  (here the Kistler K-1)

to this level ==>
free flying space station (e.g. MirCorp Mini-station)
and a commercial module (e.g. Spacehab Enterprise)
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 Yes!

Can we really get to space with private investment?

By 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.

Can a 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.

Most importantly, 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;

  • Sub-orbital 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.

The Private Space Development Timeline


Access to Space Market Drivers Other Developments
2003 - 2004
  • X Prize vehicles begin sub-orbital flights leading to a winner before the Jan.2005 deadline.
  • Commercial sub-orbital vehicle development starts
  • X Prize money and glory
  • Development of vehicles for space tourism
  • TransOrbital sends a commercial spacecraft into Lunar orbit.
  • 2 tourists per year go to the ISS aboard Soyuz transports
2005-2006 One or more commercial sub-orbital vehicles begin regular flights carrying 1-2 passengers and other payloads on each trip.

Main sub-orbital market is tourism but additional markets include

  • High altitude imaging & reconnaissance
  • Micro-gravity & other scientific payloads
  • Release of missile defense targets
  • Air show exhibitions
  • Orbital Recovery demonstrates comsat rendezvous, re-boost, and station-keeping services
  • TransOrbital 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.
  • Development of commercial sub-orbitals with 3-4 passenger capacity
  • Sub-orbital carries a second stage that delivers small payloads to orbit (e.g. RASCAL scale)
  • Sub-orbital 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.
  • MirCorp begins construction of its Mini-station.
  • Assembly of satellites on the ISS for commercial LEO and GEO services begins.
  • Development of commercial sub-orbitals with 5-6 passenger capacity
  • Development of a 2-stage orbital system using one of the previously developed sub-orbitals as the second stage.
  • Sub-orbital tourism grows to ~500 million dollar a year industry with 10000+ passengers per year plus the other sub-orbital markets listed above.
  • 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.
  • Mir-Corp's Mini-station launched and initially occupied by cosmonauts and space tourists arriving by Soyuz.
  • Bigelow Aerospace begins hardware development of a space habitat based on inflatable, Transhab style structures.
2011-2012 Orbital space tourism trips begin on a two stage RLV.
  • Several hundred customers sign up for orbital space trips at ~$1 million per seat for trip to the Mini-station.
  • Private 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.
  • Spacedev sends a spacecraft to an asteroid to prospect for possible mining development.
2012-2014 Orbital space tourism trips to the Bigelow Aerospace space hotel. Several 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.
  • Products made on the private space stations, such as exotic glass and metallic artworks, begin selling on earth.


Discussion and Reference Materials

Potential Roadblocks:

  • 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.

  • A serious accident early in the X Prize and/or commercial sub-orbital vehicle development leads to heavy regulation and restrictions that significantly slows further development.

  • 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.

Potential Accelerators :

  • 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 start.

  • 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.

  • Constellations 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.

Financial Issues :

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 :

  • Startup 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:
  • Angel 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, the Futron/Zogby survey of wealthy households showed that 19% of the respondents would be willing to pay up to $100k for a ride to 100km.
  • Space 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 -Oct.2002

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.

Technical Issues :

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
  • XCOR developed the EZ-Rocket demonstrator and its own line of rocket engines with a very modest amount of funding.

  • Burt 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 cost operations
    • 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.

Is 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 indicated.

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.


HobbySpace References:

Created on Dec.27, 2002
Modified Dec.31.03

Feedback & Updates

12.31.03: 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.

6.24.03: 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 development.

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.

2.21.03: The participants in a brief discussion - 2.16.03 on the sci.space.policy newsgroup seemed to find the above timeline reasonable.

12.29.02: Andrew James:

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 hypersonic).

These mergers/takeover 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. Regards, Andy

HS: 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.


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