Will suborbital space travel explode? It depends

Federal Aviation Administration study lays out good and bad of future suborbital markets

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The Federal Aviation Administration says that depending on a number of wide-ranging variables, the commercial use of reusable spacecraft that touch the threshold of space but don't actually enter it could grow significantly over the next ten years to be worth as much as $1.6 billion.  But there are a ton of caveats.

A study released this week funded by the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation and Space Florida, and conducted by The Tauri Group stated that there are nine reusable spacecraft models being built by six companies - including Armadillo, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic and XCOR --  currently in active planning, development or operation.

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The capacity of these vehicles ranges from tens of kilograms to hundreds, with the largest currently planned capacity at about 700 kilograms. A number of these vehicles can carry humans, with current designs for one to six passengers, in addition to one or two crew members in piloted vehicles. Some vehicles will also launch very small satellites (under about 15 kilograms), the FAA stated.  Vehicle launch types vary between vertical takeoff and landing and horizontally launched winged vehicles. 

The "Ten Year Forecast of Suborbital Reusable Vehicles" study tries to cover all the bases of how such commercial suborbital markets would evolve beginning in 2013/14 for many operators. For example it defines three scenarios (and potential challenges) of potential growth opportunities like this:

  • Baseline Scenario - The report finds that over 10 years, demand increases from 373 seats in the first year of regular operations to 533 seats in the 10th year, for a ten-year total of 4,518 seats. This scenario looks at today's consumer demand and research budgets, with daily flights bringing in nearly $600 million over 10 years.
  • Constrained Scenario- The report finds that demand over 10 years, involves 213 seats in the first year, increasing to 255 seats in the 10th year. This scenario recognizes a significant drop from today's demand. With multiple flights per week, activities may bring in $300 million over 10 years.
  • Growth Scenario-The report finds that over 10 years, the demand for seats increases from 1,096 in the first year to 1,592 seats in the 10th year, with a total of 13,134 seats over 10 years. This scenario looks at increased demand due to the positive cumulative effect of marketing and research successes with multiple flights per day, bringing in over $1.6 billion over 10 years.

The challenges in all of this are manifold.  The study touches on a number of them:

  • The forecast predicts outcomes related to experiences that, for the most part, do not yet exist. If levels of Suborbital Reusable Vehicles (SRVs) capability and performance vary from what is expected based on today's information, demand will change from predicted levels.
  • Forecast results are particularly sensitive to assumptions regarding future consumer behavior. The forecast assumes passengers fly once only, that a potential passenger has a 1/25 probability of flying in a given year (so 40% of interested passengers today will fly within the next 10 years), and that most (95%) passengers have net assets exceeding $5 million. Relaxing or strengthening any of these assumptions changes demand significantly.
  • Research success and identification of a clear, related commercial application that requires sustained, ongoing SRV use could increase funding beyond the exploratory levels predicted.
  • The forecast reflects expectations about future government interest in SRVs. If SRV capabilities vary from current expectations, these levels of activity could be either higher or lower. Further, if NASA decision dynamics change, SRVs could be used for astronaut training, to replace sounding rockets to a greater degree, or for microgravity research integrated with ISS activities.
  • The forecast also predicts that more than 50 international governments will begin to fund SRV research. National restrictions on access to SRVs could potentially limit funding from these governments. Alternatively, rapid uptake and greater activity from these nations could result in higher demand than predicted.
  • As an indicator of the revenue associated with estimated demand, we translated our forecast from seat/cargo equivalents at a rate of $123,000 per seat/cargo equivalent. This estimate reflects announced seat prices across vehicles in active development, extrapolated to all vehicles (including cargo-only vehicles) based on vehicle capacity. It is a rough estimate. No cargo prices (other than satellite deployment costs on an XCOR Lynx Mark III) have been announced, though some providers have stated informally that cargo costs align with seat costs for their vehicles.
  • The mix of vehicles in operation will affect both demand and revenue. Vehicles are priced differently and have different capabilities.

The study went on to identify the key applications or markets such reusable spacecraft might address.  They include:

  • Commercial Human Spaceflight - The largest of potential SRV markets, these short rocket flights provide participants with one to five minutes of microgravity. According to the study, typically such flights would be purchased by individuals, and corporate clients.
  • Basic and Applied Research - The next largest market is research, which appears to support demand for hundreds of experiments in a number of areas. SRVs could help facilitate potential studies that involve both biological and physical research addressing atmospheric science, space science and human functioning.
  • Education -This is the fastest growing market, as educational flight opportunities are integrated into curriculums. Educational applications offer potential for kindergarten to 12th grade experiences, as well as university instructional missions.
  • Aerospace Technology Test and Demonstration - SRV allow for testing of technologies in reduced gravity, radiation, heat, and vacuum environments.
  • Media and Public Relations - Film and television studios may find commercial advantage in having access to space.
  • Satellite Deployment - Very small satellites could be launched from specially designed SRVs.
  • Remote Sensing- This application involves generation of commercial Earth imagery for civilian and military purposes.
  • Point to Point Transportation - SRVs would be used to provide high speed passenger, troop or package transportation.

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