Essays to liberals - The Space Economy, Pt2
by Ferris Valyn, Thu Mar 06, 2008 at 03:25:53 PM EST
Here is the 2nd part, of a 3 part series, on the space economy. You can read the first part by clicking here.
In this piece, I talk about suborbital space business.
Again, if you haven't read part 1, please go and read it.
Sub-orbital spaceflight is real spaceflight. While we don't achieve the speeds for orbital velocity, because of the extra height we can actually pass beyond the reach of gravity, temporarily, and achieve longer periods of weightlessness. The actual distance from the earth is a minimum of 100 km, although many crafts are talking about going 150 km, and even 200 km. As I said, this actually puts us in space, and also gives us access to the higher regions of the atmosphere, and allows for large views of the earth; and of course, extra time in weightlessness. So what can you do with this? Well, there are a lot of things; the most obvious one is Sub-orbital space tourism.
While there have been many who deride the space tourism market, there are clear market studies that show that people are willing to spend money on this, and to demonstrate this further, its worth noting that, as of October of last year Virgin Galactic had sold (or taken deposits for) 31 million dollars. I believe that number is now up to 40 million, but I can't remember where I saw that. Now, at $200,000 per ticket, that is still rather pricey, but there is every reason to expect that this price will go down (I'll go into this more in a future installment).
And while most people know of Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites (thanks to Richard Branson and Burt Rutan), but there are more companies pursuing space tourism than just Rutan and Branson - there is Blue Origin, and XCOR, and Armadillo Aerospace, and Rocketplane, just to name a few - there are more than just that though. But that gives you a good idea - this isn't something that just 1 or 2 rich people are playing with - this is a serious field, of entrepreneurs and engineers, looking for investment capital. And they are succeeding, with both the technology, and slowly finding the required investment capital. BTW, if your curious as to why someone would shell out money for these experiences, then I suggest you read this.
In addition to the sub-orbital tourist flights, there is another market that, in fact, already exists - sounding rockets. These are rockets that fly to near space, or into space, but don't go into orbit. For those who want a lot of detail, click here. Now, if you read the Wikipedia article, you'll note that they say sounding rockets are cheaper than satellites, and that is true - much like how a BMW is cheaper than a Ferrari (these things are all relative, aren't they). But the vehicles that these companies are developing and building will be substantially cheaper than current sounding rockets. That means more flights, for governmental agencies, and university researchers. And more flights mean more data, whether you are wondering about the upper atmosphere with regards to global warming, or want data on the zero-g effects of bread yeast (more on this later). In fact, the price might be low enough to allow for some limited manufacturing of composites (You can listen to Jon Goff talk about these composites in his interview, on the space show) Part of the point of this is that, while flights on board the Zero-G aircraft will give you 30 seconds of weightlessness, these crafts will give you minutes of weightlessness, which translates into more and better data.
Now, I mentioned the bread yeast thing for a reason - Masten Space Systems is a company that is pursuing this sounding rocket market, but they've added a twist - called CanSat, Masten is selling a small space to researchers, ranging from professionals, to school kids wanting to have a unique science fair project. Yes, thats right, they are attempting to make it cheap enough so that school kids can do a science fair project, and send it into space. And they aren't looking to make it just accessible to the rich prep school kids - they want to be able to offer this to students ranging from prep schools, to the inner city schools. The science fair market can be very profitable, and Masten hopes to tap into that. Which brings me back the the bread yeast - a father and son, who bake bread together, wonder if dough that rises in zero-g will taste better - Masten will help them find out. Maybe in the near future, you'll be helping your child with a science fair project that spent time in space.
The nice thing about these sub-orbital science flights, whether for a true research market, or for the K-12 science fair market, both types have the potential to lead to new technological developments, which means more new products, and new industries (the first instance of the space multiplier effect - more on this in tomorrow's essay).
Now, I've mentioned the weightlessness, and talked about it quite a bit, but the other area of business interest in sub-orbital spaceflight comes by looking out your window - yes, as Brian Binnie noted in the space review article I linked to earlier, the view is truly spectacular. However, it's not just enjoyable - Remoting sensing is used by a lot of industries, companies, organizations, and individuals. Now, this market is already serviced by satellites, it is true. So why is it of interest to sub-orbital vehicle providers? Because satellite data is not cheap - the current base price for remote sensing from satellites is $60 per square km. What are the reason for these expenses? Well, 2 parts. First, current launch prices are not cheap (although, as I said, I expect that to change in the near future, for orbital as well as sub-orbital). Secondly, a lot of high-end, long lasting, super efficient components are needed for these satellites. Once launched, these satellites need to work for years to come, since we can't easily replace parts when things break.
This is one market that the sub-orbital reusable vehicles can focus on. In fact, this is one of TGV-Rockets' primary markets - being able to sell data to farmers (and other people who need remote sensing) at a lower cost, would allow for either expanded use, or allow for more money to be used elsewhere. By being able to provide data only when needed, and also being able to replace worn-out parts in the cameras and sensors, TGV-rockets (and other companies who pursue this market) can cut the price for remote sensing data. BTW, the price reduction they are projecting? TGV's base price is roughly $14 per square km.
And that's not really the end of the sub-orbital market - there are other potential markets as well - expand space sports beyond the atmosphere (ie true spacediving), private sales (high end yachts can be quite profitable), and point to point travel, just to name a few.
Now, its important to note, that many of the companies pursuing these various business opportunities are designing and building their vehicle so that it can easily be converted, so that it can fly different types of missions, for different types of customers (one flight might be for space tourists, the next flight would be for researchers, and so on). This kind of flexibility allows for more new markets and industries to be created, of which we can only try to imagine.
While atmospheric and sub-orbital space development can help our economy, the biggest impact will happen from orbital space development. I hope you'll join me for tomorrow's essay, to read about that.