United Launch Alliance has spacesuit, will travel. Image source: Getty Images.

You say SpaceX wants to cut the cost of spaceflight by 75% -- or more?

And SpaceX also wants to put a human on Mars -- before NASA can get there?

Well, hold on just a minute there, Tex. Because over at Boeing (BA -0.87%) and Lockheed Martin (LMT 0.73%), United Launch Alliance has some pretty grand plans for space of its own.

"Cislunar 1,000"

Over at SpaceX, Elon Musk has done a pretty good job of enthralling the masses, and rekindling a love for all things "space" in the American public. But as recently reported on Space.com, United Launch Alliance isn't ceding anything to SpaceX in the race to reimagine space.

In its new blueprint for space exploration, ULA lays out a plan for humanity in space, dubbed the "Cislunar 1000 Vision" -- and it's a big one. Over the next 30 years, ULA believes it will be possible to launch astronauts into space not just three at a time, with the lofty objective of floating around the Earth in an aluminum tube -- but sending dozens, scores, even hundreds of explorers into the region bounded by Earth and its Moon, to live and work there long-term.

ULA argues that its technology has matured to the point that ULA rockets are no longer restricted to just one-way missions to Earth orbit. Today, ULA believes that spaceships, once launched into orbit, can proceed to conducting new missions while they're up there -- and don't necessarily have to come back down.

Cislunar 1000 hinges on ULA developing its new Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage rocket (ACES) to maturity, and turning this second-stage rocket into a sort of Earth-Moon shuttle. ULA says that once it's cleared Earth's atmosphere, ACES will become reusable in space, refuelable for work on new missions, and capable of being used in space work "forever." With the addition of "kit" parts, ULA even aims to transform an ACES rocket, which begins its life as a lowly second stage, into a fuel tanker called XEUS that can ferry landers to and from the Moon -- there to extract fuel (i.e., water), and use it to continue operating in cislunar space.

ULA vice president of advanced programs George Sowers says he wants to "buy propellant in space," for about $450 a pound. (That's about 1/28 the cost of lifting the same pound of fuel from Earth's surface into orbit: $12,500.) Says Sowers: "Once I have a reusable stage and can buy my fuel [in space] then I have the potential to dramatically lower costs to go elsewhere."

What it means to investors

To get this ambitious plan off the ground, ULA first needs to finish building its Vulcan rocket (still in development, with an expected arrival date of 2019). Vulcan will serve as the first stage used to get ACES into orbit; paired with it will be the ACES second stage (due date: 2023). ULA plans to enlist the help of such space tech companies as Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin, privately held XCOR Aerospace, and Aerojet Rocketdyne (AJRD) to get the ACES and XEUS concepts up and running -- and believes it will have all the parts in place to make its Cislunar 1000 "vision" a reality sometime in the mid-2020s.

So right there you have five companies that could benefit from ULA's Cislunar 1000 Vision: Blue Origin, XCOR, Aerojet, and of course the two halves of ULA itself: Boeing and Lockheed Martin. Additionally, ULA's plan opens up the possibility for other space-based entrepreneurs to get in the game:

  • Companies to mine and extract propellant from the Moon (and passing asteroids?)
  • Fuel companies to shuttle fuel from the Moon (and elsewhere) to the spaceships that need it
  • Space auto-body shops to keep all the equipment in working order
  • Companies to house, feed, and service the needs of the miners, fuel workers, and mechanics
  • And on, and on, and on

Help wanted: 1,000 astronauts -- and not a few investors

Ambitious as ULA's plan sounds, it's clear that ULA's vision of 1,000 humans working in space full-time, 30 years from now, isn't all that far-fetched. Today it looks like Boeing and Lockheed Martin, along with Aerojet Rocketdyne, are the most immediately available ways to invest in the concept. But stay tuned.

If ULA is anywhere near 20/20 in its "vision," the next few decades could see a whole lot of new companies created for us to invest in -- and we'll have ULA to thank for it.