The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

An illustration of TGV Rockets' Michelle-B suborbital vehicle being prepared for launch at a remote mobile site. (credit: TGV Rockets)

Suborbital’s ascending trajectory

Once dismissed as a dead end, reusable suborbital spacecraft are finally getting respect

It’s one thing for entrepreneurs and space activists to tout the benefits of a particular mode of commercial space transportation. When outside experts and the occasional bureaucrat express support for the idea, its credibility grows. However, you know the idea is finally gaining wide acceptance when a leading elected official, speaking on the record, endorses the concept. Commercial suborbital spaceflight achieved that milestone earlier this year.

“I think the time is right to develop suborbital space applications,” said Mary Fallin, lieutenant governor of Oklahoma, in a speech in February at the FAA’s annual AST Forecast Conference, sponsored by the FAA Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation (AST). “The suborbital market has not even begun to take off.”

Fallin, who also serves as chair of the Aerospace States Association, is perhaps the highest-ranking elected official to date to promote commercial suborbital spaceflight as an economically viable venture. She is not alone, though, as a small but growing chorus of government officials, businesspeople, and others are spreading the word about suborbital spaceflight, a field that several years ago was dismissed by many as a dead end.

Changing markets, changing vehicles

Why the change of heart about suborbital spaceflight? Five years ago, the prospects for commercial suborbital spaceflight looked limited, consisting primarily of joyrides for tourists. The real market appeared to be in orbital applications, namely the launch of the hundreds, if not thousands, of low Earth orbit (LEO) communications satellites forecast to be deployed in the next decade and beyond. That market looked so large that it could support several reusable launch vehicles (RLVs), rendering suborbital spaceflight as a niche market of, at best, secondary importance.

At the peak of the telecom launch boom suborbital applications appeared to be, at best, a secondary market compared to launching communications satellites.

In the last several years, however, orbital launch markets have dried up. The well-known financial failures of companies like Iridium and Globalstar have dissuaded others from launching similar constellations of satellites, reducing the commercial launch market for LEO satellites to a handful of remote sensing and scientific missions. With proposed RLVs unable to carry large communications satellites into geostationary orbit, and a glut of capacity among existing expendable boosters, the business cases of many RLVs proposed in the mid and late 1990s fell apart.

At the same time, the prospects for commercial space tourism have grown stronger. The successful flights of Dennis Tito and Mark Shuttleworth on Soyuz taxi missions to the International Space Station have, at the very least, increased public awareness of the concept of space tourism and raised the profiles of companies seeking to convert that interest into customers. The market for suborbital space tourism is potentially quite large: a study published last year by the Futron Corporation concludes that by 2021 suborbital space tourism could support 15,000 passengers a year and bring in $700 million a year in revenue, based on the demand for such flights by people with the financial means to pay for them. Also, with the $10 million X Prize now fully funded, at least for the near term, there is an additional financial incentive for entrepreneurial rocketeers.

There is also growing acceptance of suborbital markets beyond space tourism. The US Department of Commerce published a report last December that outlined the various markets that could be served by suborbital RLVs. The report, prepared for the Commerce Department by the Aerospace Corporation, outlines a number of markets beyond space tourism for suborbital vehicles, including remote sensing, microgravity experimentation, fast package delivery, even “space diving” (essentially extremely high-altitude skydiving). While the study doesn’t attempt to rigorously measure the potential size of these markets, the existence of the report itself is proof that even the federal government is taking seriously the concept of commercial suborbital spaceflight.

page 2: making suborbital happen >>