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Maryniak celebrates landing
X Prize executive director Gregg Maryniak (right) celebrates as SpaceShipOne, seen on the video screen behind him, touches down after its second Ansari X Prize flight. (credit: J. Foust)

Ka-CHING!

Dateline: Mojave, October 4, 2004. Tom Bodet greeted me this morning at 4:45 am PDT with the words “You just won ten million dollars!” But it was not until 10:50 that SpaceShipOne rocketed into space for the second time in five days in order to win the $10 million Ansari X Prize for Mojave Aerospace Ventures. “Ka-CHING” was the summary from Henry Vanderbilt, who runs the Space Access Society, watching from the tarmac behind the hangar of a neighbor of Scaled Composites.

There were fewer people out in Mojave than for the first two flights to space according to a casual look by some of the folks who had been to all three flights. This flight, however, was the one that was of interest to economists. Flying to space solo or flying the weight of three people to space a few times a year are not economically interesting. So I came to the third spaceflight of SpaceShipOne and I was not disappointed.

The third flight proved that a ship could be ready for flight in five days. This is a great feat achieved by Burt Rutan and produced by Paul Allen. They have also accomplished another great feat reducing the price of a suborbital flight to cost $100,000 wholesale per seat in operating costs. (See “X-15 and today’s spaceplanes”, The Space Review, August 9, 2004.)

This flight was the one that was of interest to economists. Flying to space solo or flying the weight of three people to space a few times a year are not economically interesting.

Mojave Aerospace Ventures is not resting on its laurels. It announced last week with Virgin Galactic the introduction of commercial service. If the operating cost and turnaround time can be achieved on the fleet that Richard Branson has announced he could buy from Mojave Aerospace Ventures, the project will be off to a great start. 3,000 passengers in five years requires 600 seats flown a year or a fraction less than 9 seats flown every five days. That would require a fleet of five three-seat craft or three four-seat craft, or just two six-seat craft at that rate. There are some other factors that could raise or lower the number of spaceships required. There would need to be spares for maintenance. Passenger training facilities could potentially train two or three groups of passengers at once. Time between flights per craft could be reduced as could the expense of fuel, operations and maintenance.

To make the venture profitable, there also needs to be demand. According to Futron, there will only be about 4,000 wealthy passengers willing to fly between 2007 and 2011 at a price of $100,000 per flight. While there is certainly some pent-up demand because there is unlikely to be any other commercial option in 2004-2006, that might not support the $190,000 price Branson envisions. If demand is more in line with Futron-Zogby and not as rosy as Branson predicts, he would either have to settle for fewer customers, lower profit margins or fewer space planes/flights. Another choice might be to have a space lottery that would generate demand from less wealthy customers.

SpaceDev, the developer of the hybrid engine for SpaceShipOne, is not resting on its laurels either. It has announced an alliance with Ames Research Center to pursue its Dream Chaser rocket. It is seeking around $15 million to make that a reality ,according to Jim Benson, CEO of SpaceDev. This will be a good testbed for SpaceDev to explore operational and cost efficiencies of its hybrid engines. While not as cheap as a tank of liquid fuel, the hybrid engines resulted in a fast speed to market so we may see hybrid engines take an early lead in suborbital space access.

While not as cheap as a tank of liquid fuel, the hybrid engines resulted in a fast speed to market so we may see hybrid engines take an early lead in suborbital space access.

The triumph is also for the X Prize Foundation which may have been the catalyst for the ignition of a $700-million-a-year industry in 2021 according to Futron. Peter Diamandis, Chairman of the X-Prize foundation is looking forward to continuing the catalysis with the X-Prize cup. This may be the first venue we see many of the other Ansari X Prize competitors light up.

The prize torch has been taken up by Robert Bigelow that has announced he will fund $25 million toward a $50 million orbital prize. Bigelow should definitely include features of the Ansari X Prize such as turnaround time and the weight of passengers that made the Ansari X Prize so relevant to the future of suborbital passenger travel.

All of these developments could potentially result in a vibrant and profitable space tourist economy worth billions per year. As the cost of space access drops, suddenly the Moon will become as accessible as Antarctica was when the first science stations started dotting it. Perhaps it will be prize winners and tourists that take the next step on the Moon and, to paraphrase Neil Armstrong, take another giant leap for Mankind.


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