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Michelle-B illustration
TGV might have found a killer app for suborbital spaceflight, and it has nothing to do with space tourism. (credit: J. Foust)

Two guys at the vanguard

TGV stands for “Two guys and a van” and got their start trying to figure out how to reduce the cost of spaceflight operations. They have discovered a very interesting market: suborbital imagery.

The Bush Administration announced plans last week to restart plutonium 238 production. For $1.5 billion over 30 years, they get about 5 kilograms a year of plutonium whose main use is for thermoelectric generation to power classified military applications. $1.5 billion is a lot of money. If you add in the $9.5 billion here and the $25 billion there we are talking a pretty good chunk of change.

$500 million in suborbital spaceflight a year might buy 5,000 recon missions.

Suppose instead of $35 billion on spy satellites, we cut that back to $25 billion or so and spent $500 million a year on suborbital spaceflight. Spy satellites spend a lot of time over water, unpopulated areas, and other uninteresting locales. It is not really possible for them to be providing surveillance everywhere all the time. Furthermore, nations subject to such surveillance are able to track most of the satellites. They can cease activity when the birds are overhead, as India and Pakistan did prior to their 1998 nuclear tests.

$500 million in suborbital spaceflight a year might buy 5,000 recon missions. The flight profile would be 15 minutes in space over the target. The launches would not be as easily anticipated as a satellite in orbit. The flights could be concentrated in the theater of operations where there is something going on. The timing could be tailored to occur when something is going on. The focus of the recon could be shifted by a person monitoring the data real-time on the craft.

The 1250 hours a year of surveillance of the target to be equaled by spy satellites requires that $500 million a year worth of spy satellites would have to be over targets 10% of the time. Even if that were true, the differential value of the targets, the timing, and the control make suborbital an excellent complement and even partial substitute for satellites.

The intelligence product would be excellent. Pictures could be timed to track bombing results during an attack and again after the dust is settled. This kind of streamlining of faster intelligence data could be used to create new missions faster and to retarget bombers that are in flight.

This could be a very innovative company with the killer app for suborbital.

TGV is poised to tackle this market with their Michelle-B rocket. They hold their nose at the space tourism market, actively talking it down at this year’s Space Access conference. They do not see how it can be safe enough for the insurance to be cheap enough without flying off some of the risk in another market. Nevertheless, they are producing a manned vertical takeoff, vertical landing vehicle that could very easily be used to serve the space tourism market once it proves to be safe enough. They would not want to operate the craft for that market until they can get low-cost insurance, but might sell one of their craft to someone else if there is an interested party.

They have snapped up many of the engineers who worked on the DC-X, which demonstrated many of the technologies TGV will deploy, and also the former blogger “Rocket Man”, aka Mark Oakley, who has not blogged in the last year he has been on the TGV team. His boss says that is because he is busy for a change.

This could be a very innovative company with the killer app for suborbital. On the other hand, tourism may turn out to be far more than 5,000 flights (Futron predicts closer to 50–100) and their competitors are likely to make it to market as early as 2007. If price and a long track record are the decisive factors in determining the survivors in the suborbital market, TGV is worth watching whatever the killer app turns out to be.


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