WASHINGTON — If the commercial space launch industry is to expand beyond a niche market, it will have to figure out how to get every-day people into space affordably, a panel of industry leaders said Tuesday.
Commercial space launch companies generally sustain themselves with government contracts and a limited number commercial satellite launches. And while these markets can support a budding industry, Jim Kramer, vice president of engineering for International Launch Services, said there isn’t much room for growth in the near future.
“What we’re seeing from the demand side is that the historical communications satellite market is always 20 – 25 launches a year,” Kramer said. “That market segment is pretty static and we don’t expect any changes.”
Bretton Alexander, business director for Blue Origin, said the cargo that has the biggest upside for commercial space companies in the next 10 years is not private satellites or space station supplies, but people.
“Even if you’re going to darken the sky with satellites, you’re still talking about a limited market from a launch perspective,” Alexander said. “Private human spaceflight has been the only thing in my mind that can really change the game in terms of launch demand.”
But in order to build a business around private space travel, space launch companies will have to offer consumers an affordable trip aboard a ship they can believe will be reasonably safe.
The private space industry may find both affordability and safety in reusable vehicles and parts. In addition to saving companies money by eliminating the need to build an entirely new rocket for every launch, Alexander said reusable spacecraft are also more dependable.
“If you can reuse or recover a rocket, you can get reliability much higher because, obviously, the safest airplane to fly on is the one you just got off of, not the one that just came out of the factory,” Alexander said, “so we’re taking that same approach with engines and launch vehicles.”
A.C. Charania, business director for Virgin Galactic, said that despite a fatal test flight crash of its reusable spaceplane, SpaceShipTwo, in 2014, there are still over 700 customers lined up to pay $250,000 each for a ticket onboard his company’s promised tourist flights to suborbital space.
“I think that gives all of us confidence in the marketplace that there is a robust initial set of customers,” Charania said.
Charania said he expects there will be many more customers lining up once they’ve seen several safe space flights. If demand is as high as expected, Charania said Virgin Galactic hopes to send its reusable spacecraft on frequent suborbital tourist trips.
“If we can use these vehicles and fly customers at the price point we’ve stated,” Charania said, “I think this is a very attractive business.”