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Rocketplane XP illustration
Rocketplane Global is looking into performing point-to-point suborbital spaceflights within Hawaii—from Kona to Oahu—with its XP vehicle under development. (credit: Rocketplane Global)

First steps towards point-to-point spaceflight

The current interest in suborbital commercial spaceflight, be it for space tourism or other applications, is seen by most as an initial stepping stone towards markets that are technically more challenging but also more lucrative. For some the goal is inexpensive, reliable access to space for satellites, people, and other payloads. That approach combines a mix of firmly established, mature markets (launching satellites for government and commercial customers) with emerging ones (such as space tourism and space station resupply).

Others, though, have their eyes on a different market: point-to-point suborbital transportation. The idea isn’t new (recall that the X-30 National Aerospace Plane was described in President Reagan’s 1986 State of the Union address as a “new Orient Express” that could fly from Washington DC to Tokyo in two hours) but continues to attract vehicle developers who see even a small fraction of the commercial aviation industry as far bigger than any market in space. Point-to-point suborbital spaceflight, though, has its share of challenges, from the technology needed for such vehicles to questions about the economics of such flights and uncertainties about the international regulatory environment. Nonetheless, a number of advocates in both the public and private sectors are continuing to lay the groundwork for this market, even if its realization may still be years away.

Intrastate point-to-point

Commercial suborbital vehicles currently under development are typically intended to launch from and land at the same site—or at least very close to it. For applications like space tourism this makes sense, as the purpose of the flight isn’t to go from point A to point B but instead take in the experience of spaceflight. However, some of the vehicles, particularly winged models designed to take off and land horizontally, do have a limited degree of range, which opens up some interesting possibilities.

“It’s essentially the same total ground track that we fly in Oklahoma, except that we’re taking the hairpin and unfolding it into a straight line,” Lauer said of plans to fly the XP from Kona to Oahu.

Speaking at the FAA Commercial Space Transportation Conference in Crystal City, Virginia, earlier this month, Rocketplane Global vice president Chuck Lauer discussed his company’s plans to operate its XP suborbital spaceplane from Hawaii as the first of its “secondary” spaceports it would use after its home base in Oklahoma. However, instead of taking off and landing at the same airport, as it would in Oklahoma, the XP would take off from one island and land on another. “It will be the first licensed point-to-point suborbital spaceflight corridor,” he said. “You’re not taking off and landing at the same point.”

Under the notional plan Lauer discussed at the conference, the XP would take off under jet power from Kona International Airport on the Big Island and, after igniting its rocket motor for the suborbital part of the flight, land on Oahu. While Honolulu International Airport would be one possible landing site, Lauer said later that an alternative was Kalaeloa Airport, the former Barbers Point Naval Air Station on the west side of Oahu. The total trip length would be about the same as flights from the Oklahoma Spaceport, where the XP would take off and fly away from the spaceport before turning around and flying the suborbital part of the flight on the way back. “It’s essentially the same total ground track that we fly in Oklahoma, except that we’re taking the hairpin and unfolding it into a straight line,” he said.

In support of this effort, bills were introduced in the Hawaii State Legislature this year that would fund the work needed to apply for spaceport licenses from the FAA. As of last week, the state House and Senate versions of the legislation, HB994 and SB222 respectively, had won approval in some committees but had yet to be taken up by the full legislature. The bills had already been amended, though, to remove the $500,000 appropriation for the licensing work because of “serious budget concerns” in the state as a result of the current recession, in the words of a report accompanying the House version of the bill; instead, the legislature will ask the state’s Department of Business, Economic Development, and Tourism if it has the necessary funding in its current budget to support this.

Lauer said that Hawaii’s interest in this work is not limited to getting a piece of the emerging space tourism market. “The reason they’re doing it is that they want to be nodes in a future global spaceport infrastructure” for point-to-point transportation, an effort Lauer suggested paralleled with previous investments made by the state. “Hawaii invested in the 1930s, digging the channels in what’s now Honolulu Harbor, for the Pan Am seaplanes to actually make it there… The reason they’re a global hub for tourism [today] is that they invested in the ’30s to bring those Pan Am seaplanes there.”

Rocketplane has plans to service Hawaii and other nodes in that global spaceport infrastructure with later versions of the XP vehicle that can do longer-range point-to-point spaceflight, but for the time being the company is trying to raise money to finish development of the initial XP. “The big deal right now is fundraising,” he said. “Raising money in this environment is tough.” He said Rocketplane hasn’t found any interest from American investors, but is finding interest overseas, particularly when tied to theme park-like attractions that can bring in a wider audience and enhance the overall business case. “We’ve got several international investment groups that are looking at our deal on that basis that I think we’re pretty close to,” he said, which if they come through would allow Rocketplane to start operations in 2011 or 2012.

Fast forward to cargo

One of the most common applications for point-to-point suborbital spaceflight that has been discussed over the years is what’s commonly known as fast package delivery: the rapid transportation of time-sensitive cargo around the globe. Like those interested in point-to-point passenger travel, proponents believe that, given the current size of the air cargo market, fast package delivery could be a large market for suborbital vehicles. The problem, though, has been that there’s been little hard data to back up those arguments.

“We have raised more questions than we have answers for at this time,” Olds said of the FastForward cargo study. “But we are working on it.”

“The question is, is there an opportunity for those of us in the space community to do something about making [cargo delivery] faster, and if we did, what are the implications of that and what is the size of the market itself?” asked John Olds, CEO of SpaceWorks Engineering, Inc. (SEI), during a presentation at another session of the FAA conference earlier this month. There are a number of unanswered questions about this market, ranging from the premium customers are willing to pay to get their cargo shipped faster, the volume of activity, and the tradeoffs between regularly scheduled and on-demand suborbital flights in this market.

To encourage further analysis of this market, SEI established a “FastForward” study group last fall. “It’s essentially a discussion forum or advocacy group for those that believe in, or want to understand more about, fast package delivery,” Olds said. The group’s members include a number of aerospace companies, spaceports, other companies, and the FAA and Department of Commerce. The goal of the group, according to Olds, is to prepare a white paper on the market some time this year.

SEI has already done some initial studies of the market, putting together an initial network of seven cities in North America, Europe, and East Asia that would be served by a hypothetical high-speed vehicle carrying less than 1,000 kilograms per flight at an estimated price of $800 per kilogram—all based on current parameters of the air cargo market. Economic models of this concept generated a sharply negative net present value, meaning that it would lose money in the long run. “So we have some work to do,” Olds said.

The FastForward group is looking at various alternatives to this initial model, from mixing passengers with cargo to studying specific point-to-point routes that alone could make money. “We have raised more questions than we have answers for at this time,” Olds said. “But we are working on it.”

SUSTAINed interest

Suborbital vehicles capable of carrying passengers or cargo for civil uses could also have military applications as well: the ability to rapidly transport troops or cargo around the world would clearly be of interest to the Defense Department. In 2002 the Marine Corps proposed a concept called Small Unit Space Transport and Insertion (SUSTAIN) that called for the capability to launch a squad of Marines anywhere on Earth within two hours: a concept that seemed highly technically challenging even with a planned introduction date of no earlier than 2025 (see “Low-cost access to orbit: space Marines to the rescue”, The Space Review, January 9, 2006).

While SUSTAIN got some initial attention when it was first proposed, it has kept a low profile in the years since then, but now appears to be moving ahead. “It’s actually starting to pick up a lot of momentum at this point,” said Marine Corps Lt. Col. Paul Damphousse, a pilot now working on SUSTAIN at the National Security Space Office (NSSO), during a speech at the FAA conference.

One issue with the original SUSTAIN concept, Damphousse noted, was that it combined a very challenging set of requirements, from the ability to achieve orbit to stealth capability. “Doing all that stuff with one vehicle is pretty darn hard,” he said. When the NSSO reexamined the concept, they decided to drop the requirement of orbital flight to make the idea more realistic in the near term.

SUSTAIN, the proposed military point-to-point concept, is “s actually starting to pick up a lot of momentum at this point,” said Damphousse.

One of the biggest challenges that remains with SUSTAIN is landing the vehicle not at a spaceport but in an unimproved and even hostile terrain—and then taking off again. “Insertion and extraction is probably the really, really, really hard part,” Damphousse said. One option under study is not to have the vehicle land at all, but instead have the troops jump out of the vehicle while passing overhead at some unspecified but high altitude—a variation of the High Altitude Low Opening (HALO) parachuting concept currently used in the military.

Last September the Defense Department held a classified meeting to develop a concept of operations (CONOPS) for SUSTAIN that brought together potential users from across the military. Damphousse noted recent interest in SUSTAIN from special operations forces, who like the Marines are interested in the ability to quickly insert teams anywhere. “That’s important because, while this was a Marine Corps initiative, now SOCOM [Special Operations Command] is actually starting to take a little bit more dominant role because this really falls into their lane quite a bit.”

The NSSO is also reaching out to industry in studying the technologies needed to make SUSTAIN a reality. The NSSO recently released a request for information for technologies and related concepts that could support the development of SUSTAIN, and is organizing a “technology forum” on the topic this week at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. Damphousse said that there’s also interest in prize competitions to demonstrate technologies needed for SUSTAIN.

He added that what the military is interested in could have commercial applications, and vice versa. “There’s obviously a lot of synergy across the lines over to the commercial sector,” he said. “Suborbital point-to-point, high-speed cargo and logistics, all those things overlap very nicely with the things that we’re talking about.”