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Insight: Futron Executive Briefing
Suborbital Spaceflight... It’s Not Just For Tourists Anymore

by Jeffrey Foust, Ph.D., Futron

For the last several years, commercial suborbital spaceflight has been synonymous with a single application: personal spaceflight, better known as space tourism. That’s due, in part, to the publicity attracted to this sector by the $10-million Ansari X Prize competition, won in 2004 by Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne, not to mention the marketing prowess of Richard Branson and his space tourism venture, Virgin Galactic. Several other companies are developing vehicles to serve this market, from small start up ventures such as XCOR Aerospace to ultra-secretive Blue Origin, backed by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos.

It’s easy to understand all of the interest in suborbital space tourism, given that market’s potential size. A groundbreaking study performed by Futron in 2002 (and updated in 2006) indicates this could become a sizable, fast-growing market in the near future. As shown in the figure below, the demand for suborbital space tourism will reach more than 13,000 people per year by the end of the next decade, generating nearly $700 million a year in revenue.

While the focus to date has been primarily on space tourism, it’s not the only application these markets can serve. The same vehicles that can carry people to the edge of space and back can also carry any variety of other payloads, from experiments intended to operate in zero-g, to sensors designed to study the upper atmosphere and space environment, to cameras able to peer down onto the Earth. Alternatively, these vehicles can carry upper stages designed to launch small satellites into orbit at a fraction of the cost of existing launch options.

Interestingly, one of the companies carefully studying these alternative markets is one of the companies most prominently identified with space tourism: Virgin Galactic. Its interest in going after these other markets had its roots, ironically, in its efforts to better serve the space tourism market, Will Whitehorn, the president of Virgin Galactic, explained in a speech at the FAA’s 12th Annual Commercial Space Transportation Conference in Washington, DC in February. Their early customers, he explained, wanted a spacecraft big enough to float around in during the several minutes the craft experiences weightlessness, which meant a bigger, and ultimately more capable, vehicle, called SpaceShipTwo.

According to Whitehorn, Virgin is examining several additional markets. One is suborbital scientific research, where Virgin flies various types of scientific payloads. These can include the types of experiments flown on sounding rocket flights today (but larger and also recoverable), performing work in areas like space science, aeronautics, and microgravity research. Routine suborbital flights would also allow carrying educational payloads, like student-built experiments, helping address the key issue of the future of the workforce within NASA and the aerospace industry.

Virgin is looking at additional uses for SpaceShipTwo beyond science payloads. One is to use them to test technologies designed for later use in space: a suborbital mission can provide several g’s of acceleration during launch and reentry in addition to a period of weightlessness, providing a better environment for testing space hardware than on Earth. This can save time and money—not to mention embarrassment if a component is launched to space only to fail for reasons that could have been caught through such testing.

In addition to testing hardware on these flights, astronauts can be trained for future missions. Astronauts already go through extensive tests on NASA aircraft designed to provide brief moments of weightlessness. However, a suborbital vehicle can provide weightlessness for several minutes at a time. Former NASA administrator Mike Griffin mentioned on several occasions his interest in buying flights for astronaut training, once vehicles became available.

The most intriguing alternative use under study by Virgin doesn’t involve SpaceShipTwo at all. Instead, its carrier aircraft, WhiteKnightTwo, would carry aloft an expendable rocket capable of placing small satellites — up to 200 kilograms — into low Earth orbit. Virgin is working with Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd., one of the leading small satellite manufacturers in the world, to study this market, although they have yet to make any decisions on the rocket technology they would use or the price for such launches.

Virgin is not the only company usually associated with space tourism that is also interested in these additional markets. Rocketplane Global, a company developing the Rocketplane XP vehicle for suborbital launches, initially from Oklahoma, is working with potential customers in the U.S., Japan, and elsewhere. The company has designed its vehicle to be able to accommodate standard-sized experiment racks flown on the International Space Station.

XCOR Aerospace, based just down the flightline at California’s Mojave Air and Space Port where Virgin’s SpaceShipTwo is being built, is also looking at various research applications for its Lynx suborbital vehicle; a Mark 2 version of the vehicle would feature external hardpoints for mounting a small expendable upper stage for launching nanosatellites.

Other companies are ignoring space tourism altogether and, instead, focusing on flying experiments and other applications. Masten Space Systems is developing the XA series of suborbital vehicles with an eye towards flying scientific, technology demonstrations as well as education payloads for as little as $250 per kilogram.

TGV Rockets, based in Oklahoma, has long been interested in doing remote sensing using suborbital vehicles: a vehicle that could quickly fly up to 100 kilometers could provide imagery of higher resolution than available form satellites, and on demand, without the overflight concerns of using UAVs — something of particular interest to the military .

What obstacles do these companies face in trying to expand beyond space tourism? One issue is a lack of awareness: many potential uses of these services are either unaware of these vehicles’ capabilities or are even blissfully ignorant of their existence. That lack of awareness is starting to change, though.

In December, the Personal Spaceflight Federation, an industry group for the emerging commercial human spaceflight industry, and NASA’s Ames Research Center, hosted a workshop on how these vehicles could be used for science applications. The workshop, held in conjunction with the American Geophysical Union’s fall meeting in San Francisco, attracted more than 100 attendees, primarily scientists curious in the capabilities have to offer. A few months before that, NOAA signed an agreement to fly atmospheric sensors on Virgin’s WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo, albeit at no charge.

Another uncertainty is just how lucrative these non-tourism applications could be. In his February speech, Whitehorn estimated the size of the market for science, aeronautics, and research work at more than $300 million a year. This figure was based on a market analysis a team with NASA experience had performed for the company. How much of that is addressable by SpaceShipTwo and other vehicles, though, isn’t certain, nor is the size of satellite launch or other ancillary markets. Further study and outreach is needed here to better understand who would be likely customers for these vehicles and how much revenue they could provide to vehicle operators, particularly in competition with existing alternatives like zero-g aircraft flights and sounding rockets.

However, these developments demonstrate the emerging commercial suborbital industry is diversifying, looking for markets and customers beyond tourism. That diversification is essential to the industry’s long-term health and growth: an industry dependent on a single market is particularly vulnerable to disruptions to it, especially when it’s something like tourism that can seem to be an unaffordable luxury in times of economic crisis. Given that many of the companies in this market have bigger goals in mind than ferrying tourists on suborbital jaunts—namely, developing successor systems that can provide low-cost access to orbit—anything that can broaden their customer bases and mitigate the effects of economic disruption can hasten the day when they achieve those goals.

About the author
Jeff Foust is a senior analyst and project manager with the Futron Corporation and has been with the company since late 2001. He investigates current conditions and future trends in domestic and foreign commercial, civil, and military launch industries and related markets. He has a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a B.S. with honors in geophysics and planetary science from the California Institute of Technology. He also maintains several online space resources, including the news aggregator Spacetoday.net and the weekly publication The Space Review.