I am going to go very far out on a slender limb and tell you my thoughts on how things might play out over the next few decades.
First, NASA is in deep trouble. The Ares 1 is well behind schedule and the gap in their ability to take cargo and passengers to the space station has widened into a chasm. Ares 1 was pushed ahead by former NASA director Mike Griffin for two reasons. It was an effort to train younger engineers on a smaller manned vehicle design before all of the old folk retired and as a means to get to the space station when shuttle retired. Building Ares 5 as a first effort was correctly thought to be a bad idea. The problem is, Ares 1 seems to have become less an interim vehicle and more of a goal in itself. This is something one less enamoured of government would have predicted. I do not think Ares 1 will fly before 2015 and 2017 would not much surprise me.
So where does that leave us?
SpaceX has flown two very small expendable rockets of a new design with new engines. By itself that would be fun but not of much use for the long term. What is important is the commercial sense of this vehicle. It is cheap to build and cheap to fly as such things go, and more importantly for our topic today, it was the first step towards a bigger and more interesting expendable, the Falcon 9. This rocket uses a first stage cluster of 9 of the same engines as the Falcon 1 main engine and is big enough to deliver cargo to the space station. Given the clean performance of the most recent Falcon 1 flight, a second success in a row, I am going to predict they have this vehicle working by no later than the 2nd flight. That means a true commercial orbital cargo capacity by 2011, and possibly as soon as 2010.
But wait, there’s more. The cargo carrier is not just an expendable container. It has windows… for a reason. The Dragon capsule was designed and built as a manned craft from the start. After a few cargo flights SpaceX will have the operational data needed to risk placing people in it. That should happen within only a few years of the first successful flight of the Falcon 9. There is also a next generation rocket on the drawing board, the Falcon 9 Heavy, but let us leave SpaceX for now.
Although I know less about their efforts, Orbital Sciences Corporation should not be counted out in this market niche and time frame. It is entirely possible there will be two commercial package and personnel delivery companies operating in the space station environment by 2012.
Let’s look at Bigelow Aerospace. They currently have two inflatable habs in orbit. They have a 100% success rate on their orbital operations and have years of real flight data backing them now. Somewhere in the period of 2010-2012 they will be putting up the full scale unit. That one will contain a goodly amount of rentable pressurized and fully habitable volume in space. Their habitats have shown themselves to be rugged enough to survive years in space… but there is nothing special about them being in orbit. They can provide habitable volume in any low or no pressure environment. Next. Orbital Outfitters. They are making space suits for the passengers and crew of pretty much everyone working in the suborbital tourist market. Spacesuits are very expensive items and even with all of that cost are not very good. American astronauts painfully lose fingernails inside their suits. All the time. No one quite knows the cause but I understand the Russian Orlon suits do not have the problem. Perhaps an energetic small company that is building more suits and trying different things at a faster pace can solve the problem. It is always easier to try new things when the test article is relatively cheap.
Next we have a whole crop of suborbital rocketeers. The first of these, SpaceShipTwo, should have its official roll out sometime this year. Its first stage carrier, WhiteKnightTwo has already flown. Unless something drastic happens during the test campaign, real suborbital tourist flights will begin by 2011. There will be multiple airframes and the flight rates will be accelerating towards a goal of airline operational rates per tail number. This means more civilians will have flown into space by 2013/2014 than the total number of government employees who have flown to date, and that is assuming no one else succeeds.
Next in line is XCOR and its Lynx 1 project. I have a soft spot in my heart for this ship because I played ever so small a part (paid!) in its early design stages. The Lynx 1 carries only one passenger who gets to sit in the co-pilot position. The rocket plane will rotate at the end of the runway and basically go straight up to an altitude higher than that reachable by tourist flights on Russian fighter planes. Lynx 2 will follow a couple years later, paid for by the Lynx 1 flights, and will be a true suborbital vehicle.
Another interesting project is Space Diver. Armadillo Aerospace won the first phase of the lunar lander competition and now has a fairly reliable vertical take off and landing vehicle (VTVL). They are also intending to use it for tourist flights to suborbital altitudes. However, if you have a small rocket like that at high altitude, it is also possible to simply… unstrap and step out at apogee. Colonol Joseph Kittinger set the skydiving altitude record of 102,800 feet on August 16, 1960. To my knowledge, no one has even attempted to better it since then, largely because it is difficult to get a balloon gondola to a significantly higher altitude. That is why our current day record seekers are looking at Armadillo’s VTVL as a path to ever increasing record altitudes. Eventually someone will skydive from space. At some later time, some will do so and live to tell about it.
There are numerous other players, but this is enough to give you the flavor. Each one of these companies has orbital plans as well, mostly in the 2017 and after range.
There is more to spaceflight than this, and there a certainly a number of small companies like Orion Propulsion and Spacedev who are doing well and building components for other commercial space entrepreneurs.
I should also note there are now seven FAA licensed spaceports in the US, and those locations will become centers at which the commercial and entrepreneurial energy will reach fever pitch.
Now that I have laid out where we are, I can go out on that limb and project the future.
It is 2020. Several billionaires with interest in space have banded together in a Lunar Project. SpaceX has heavy cargo lift for hire; Bigelow has a large orbital business park of inflatable habs. SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, XCOR and several others have the capacity to deliver people to orbit. SpaceX has a much upgraded Dragon capsule that can be used to get to the moon; Orbital Sciences has worked with Orion Propulsion and others on the Lunar Transfer stage; Armadillo Aerospace has the lunar lander and return vehicle technology well in hand; Bigelow has built a lunar version of his successful orbital habs; and orbital outfitters has provided a new generation of lunar EVA suits.
All the staging work happens in orbit and those directly involved work and sleep at the Bigelow facility. A set of large Bigelow habs are sent from there to the lunar surface first. The pilots and workers who are going to follow remain at the Orbital Bigelow until the cargo is confirmed to be down and safe.
There are one or more super-Dragon capsules on open frame Orbital Science transfer vehicles, along with Armadillo built landers. The engineers check out all the parts in orbit; once satisfied the crew transfer over to the capsules and fire their Orion built thrusters to gently move away from the hotel before firing the main engine.
Several days later they arrive on lunar orbit and the construction crew shift to the descent module. They land near the habs and other cargo and proceed to move them to the robot prepared foundation area. Once inflated they enter and bring the habs up to full operational standards. And then they stay until the next crew arrives to relieve them. Meanwhile, more cargo ships land and they continue to expand the facility.
After a few months they declare Luna City (more like a tiny village) open for business. Among the first customers to arrive are researchers from various space agencies around the world. One or more of the habs has a big NASA logo on it and is handed over to them in a televised ceremony. Next come the tourists. By 2021 there are more than enough super rich on Earth to afford the multi-million dollar trip. Technology has moved on since the $20M tourist flights to the space station on Russian rockets.
Since Luna City is a commercial venture as well as being the dream fulfilment of those with the money to do so, it is intended to grow. Large numbers of very smart people in an unusual environment sparks creativity and very lucrative patents. The filming of documentaries and movies, moonrock jewellery, patents, tourists and paid for researchers and labs pay the bills.
And thus begins the vast outward explosion of free people.