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Climbing a Commercial Stairway to Space:
A Plausible Timeline?
Vers 2.0

by Clark S. Lindsey
March 22, 2005

Bigelow Aerospace Inflatable Habitat
(Popular Science)
Prototype of a Bigelow Aerospace inflatable space habitat module.

In Commercial Stairway to Space: Timeline - Version 1.0 I attempted to lay out a credible set of milestones leading to a robust private space development scenario that included orbital space tourism by the middle of the next decade. Some elements of that timeline up till now have not been fulfilled. There is, for example, no commercial spacecraft currently orbiting the Moon. However, a number of other events did occur that strongly support the plausibility of a non-governmental stairway to space.

As before, my intention is not to predict what will actually happen but just to illustrate the remarkable fact that private space development is no longer a fantasy. The powerful combination of 21st century technology with the 21st century wealth of space angel investors can now create both low cost transport to take people from earth to space and the habitats to live in upon arrival there. Furthermore, we have clear signs that a space tourism market will arise that is large enough to sustain and expand private space enterprise beyond a dependence on angel investors.

The availability of an alternative route to space is of crucial importance to those of us who consider the settlement of space a profoundly important step for human civilization. The vast resources of our solar system provide tremendous opportunities for economic growth, cultural diversification, and for ensuring the long term survival of humanity. We cannot let access to such opportunities depend on a single approach that is so easily stymied.

In the US, for example, it is quite possible that NASA's new exploration initiative will fail to produce new systems that significantly lower the cost of access to space. Furthermore, it is possible that a future administration will decide not only to withdraw support from the long term Moon-Mars program but to eliminate support for human spaceflight entirely. Outside of the US, all countries with significant space investments are following the same conventional government model, which produces high costs, low participation, and very slow progress.

Clearly, a "backup" approach to space development is needed and I believe one is now at hand. Others believe this as well:

"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 earlier discussion of what could delay or accelerate the scenario laid out here.

The Private Space Development Timeline - Review 2003-2004


2003 Prediction March 2005 Status Other Developments
in 2003-2004
2003 - 2004

Access to Space

  • X Prize vehicles begin suborbital flights leading to a winner before the Jan.2005 deadline.

  • Commercial suborbital vehicle development starts

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

  • Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne won the X PRIZE on Oct. 4th. Three flights into space were made in total by the SpaceShipOne vehicle.

  • In Sept. 2004, Richard Branson contracted with Mojave Aerospace Ventures to build a second generation SS1 (informally called SpaceShipTwo) that can carry 5-8 passengers. The goal is for Virgin Galactic to provide safe and routine space tourism flights by 2008. Total investment is in the $120M range.

  • As of the fall of 2004, several other X PRIZE teams were on track to launch vehicles within a year. A number of these teams are continuing with suborbital vehicle development and at least three have significant funding.

Market Drivers

  • The X PRIZE received enormous publicity and made private spaceflight a topic taken seriously by the general public and press.

  • Market studies and the high level of general interest in space tourism don't necessarily guarantee that there will be sufficient ticket buyers in the $100K-$200K ticket price range to sustain a business but they are encouraging enough to attract large investments such as the support by Richard Branson for the SS2.

Other Developments

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

  • ISS/Soyuz tourism - Greg Olsen was scheduled to go to the ISS in 2004 but his flight was canceled due to a medical problem.

  • A Russian mogul attempted to take his place but the Russian space agency would not agree to his demand for a cut-rate ticket price.

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


  • The X PRIZE Cup will build on and extend the progress achieved with the X PRIZE. The annual rocket competition and exhibition event us patterned after the air show model. The goal is to encourage further development of rocket vehicles by private organizations. The first event with rocket flights will take place in 2006 in New Mexico.

  • America's Space Prize, was announced by Bigelow Aerospace. It is a $50M prize to be awarded to the private team that develops a manned orbital vehicle by 2010.

  • SpaceX won several payload contracts for its Falcon 1. It did not achieve the goal of a first flight in 2004 but it expects to fly the Falcon 1 by mid-2005.

  • SpaceX began development of the Falcon V launcher, which will be capable of placing over 6,000 kg into LEO.

  • Bigelow Aerospace announced that it was ahead of schedule in development of inflatable space habitats. (See articles in Spaceflight Now and Popular Science.)

  • Transformational Space (or t/Space) won a design study grant for NASA's CEV system with a proposal that relied heavily on a commercial approach to hardware development and cost reduction.

  • ZERO-G successfully introduced a commercial parabolic flight service for the general public.

  • CSXT, a volunteer amateur experimental rocketry team, launched a sounding rocket into space.

  • Jeff Bezos announced that Blue Origin will carry out development and flight tests of a suborbital vehicle at a huge estate in West Texas.





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 even disappear 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. 2.0


Access to Space Other Private Space Developments

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. These competitors could include:

  • SpaceX with a crew capsule on a Falcon V.
  • Burt Rutan and Mojave Aerospace Ventures with an "SS3".
  • SpaceDev with a variant of the Dream Chaser.
  • t/Space with a system derived from their CEV proposal.

Kistler is still alive and looking for funding to emerge from bankruptcy. If it does, it will compete with SpaceX and other companies for $160M in funding from NASA for commercial cargo supply services to the ISS.

Bigelow Aerospace in early 2006 launches its first Genesis 1/3 scale inflatable habitat module on a Russian Dnepr rocket. A second module later flies on a SpaceX Falcon V.

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

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

Space Adventures flies two space tourists to the ISS.

Xero becomes the second firm to offer commercial parabolic flights to the public.

Cosmos 1 becomes the first solar sail spacecraft to sail successfully.

TransOrbital launches its lunar orbiter.


Mojave Aerospace Ventures begins test flights of the SS2 in 2007 and Virgin Galactic begins passenger flights in 2008.

In addition, 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 2005 and will be building and flying vehicles in this time frame:

For sure, some of the other suborbital projects listed here will also obtain funding and fly vehicles by 2008.

In addition, a few of the suborbital vehicles start launching small expendable second stages to take small payloads to orbit.

SpaceX and perhaps one or two other companies launch cargo payloads to the ISS.

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.)

Orbital Recovery launches the first comsat rescue mission in 2008.

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.

During the week long event, a couple of hundred thousand people attend the annual X PRIZE Cup to observe the suborbital rocket competitions and exhibitions.


Competition among the America's Space Prize contestants intensifies in 2009 and comes down to two teams. In 2010, one of them wins the prize just 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.

NASA cancels the CEV under development by one of the large aerospace consortiums and contracts with the America's Space Prize winner for its launch needs.

A European/Russian consortium forms to develop the Kliper.

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

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)



Vehicles based on the winning America's Space Prize design begin regular crew and cargo service to the ISS and to a Bigelow habitat in equatorial orbit.

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


Spacedev sends a spacecraft to an asteroid to prospect for possible mining development.

Inspired by the success of the commercial space companies and the dropping price for LEO access, several wealthy societies and private organizations of diverse ideologies and philosophies form, each with the goal of building a large scale habitat in orbit or on the Moon with hundreds of residents by 2025.


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

Plans for the first civilian mission to orbit the Moon begin serious development.

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.

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.


Links of Interest:



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