We describe the temporal development of the plasma composition of pulsed aluminum plasma streams at various oxygen pressures. The plasma was formed with a vacuum arc plasma source and the time resolved plasma composition was measured with time-of-flight charge-to-mass spectrometry. The temporal development of the plasma composition as well as the Al average ion charge state was found to be a strong function of the oxygen pressure. Oxygen and hydrogen concentrations of up to 0.36 and 0.32, respectively, were found in the first 50 μs of the pulse at oxygen pressures of ≥ 5×10−5 Torr. The average charge state of aluminum ions was found to vary from +1.2 to +2.5 depending on the oxygen pressure and the time elapsed after ignition of the arc. These results are of fundamental importance for the understanding of the evolution of the composition (through the plasma composition) and microstructure (through the Al ion flux energy) of alumina thin films produced by pulsed, reactive aluminum plasmas. © 1999 American Institute of Physics.