ARLINGTON, Va. -- Commuter space travel is sure to roar to life as a big business, at least that's what space entrepreneurs are hoping for. In fact, people are already putting down money for ticketed flight on rockets that are more artwork than hardware.
Nonetheless, the dream of patrons-as-payloads on outbound spaceships seems more real than ever with the government already attempting to regulate the fledgling industry.
Firms like Virgin Galactic, a space tourism venture backed by Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Group, have begun work shaping a suborbital space travel market--with an eye toward eventual orbital jaunts for a fee.
But getting personal spaceflight solidly off the ground--and keeping it there--also takes marketing savvy. Knowing the needs, expectations, and fears of your space passenger is critical.
A number of specialists in space tourism rallied at the 24th International Space Development Conference (ISDC), held here May 19-22, and sponsored by the National Space Society.
Marketing research is vital if commercial space tourism experiences are to be designed on the basis of a sound understanding of consumer choice behavior, explained Geoffrey Crouch, Professor of Marketing and Department Head of the School of Business at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia.
Crouch and his colleagues, Timothy Devinney of the Australian Graduate School of Management, and Jordan Louviere at the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia are engaged in new space tourism market research, work done as rigorously and as scientifically as possible.
But there are limitations, Crouch told SPACE.com. "Particularly in this situation...you're dealing with an entirely new industry. It has no sort of past history, no past customer behavior to look back on and project into the future."
Scoping out the future of space tourism is very difficult, Crouch said, made all the more so because it's a "new-to-world product."
Willing and wealthy folk
Crouch noted that events of the past year have shown that commercial space tourism is technologically feasible. But "commercial feasibility" is yet to be demonstrated, he said, and added that this viability rests on more than the existence of a few "willing and wealthy" folk, he said.
While the signs are promising, commercial space tourism entrepreneurs have many marketing questions that remain unanswered, Crouch reported. For example, what is the demand-price relationship? And what characteristics will make a 'value for money' experience for a space tourist?
There are a host of variables that consumers of space travel will reach to and perceive differently. Among then: launch location, vehicle type, duration of weightlessness, and degree of training involved.
"Obviously price is the one that people have been focusing on," Crouch said. "The safety question is going to be a key factor in any person's mind as to whether they would travel on any of these new commercial ventures."
Long and arduous path
The path to commercial success for any product is "long and arduous," Crouch said.
For every successful product, many others fail. Compared to other product categories, one must expect that the chance of failure in space tourism will likely be much higher, Crouch said.
Of the 20-plus private sub-orbital ventures, Crouch said, just how many of these will succeed is uncertain. "Many ideas never get off the drawing board."
Crouch unveiled a preliminary set of suborbital findings from their research. Among them:
- The opportunity to float in zero-g was significantly preferred compared to being strapped in a seat
- Less extensive launch vehicle training was significantly preferred
- Highly educated individuals exhibited significantly less interest in suborbital space travel
Market research: forever and a day
"The big problem with suborbital is from a customer experience perspective," Crouch advised. Pop-up travel to the fringes of space, then head for home gives a customer five or six minutes of zero-g.
"It will be very interesting to see the customer reaction to such a short experience," Crouch observed. Nevertheless, there's enjoyment in preparing for the event. "And a suborbital space tourist will have great party stories to tell for many years to come...so the experience will certainly linger for a long time."
Crouch and his associates are ready for the long haul performing market research to flag imperatives for space tourism. "You don't do a study and everything is done. Doing market research is forever and a day. There is always that need."
Pyramid of experiences
High-profile flights into orbit a few years ago of the well-to-do clearly spark general public interest in the array of space tourism-related programs available.
"Having a pyramid of experiences helps build the market all along the chain," said Eric Anderson, president and chief executive officer of Space Adventures, Ltd., based in Arlington, Virginia.
Space Adventures successfully launched private space explorers to the International Space Station, strapped tight inside a Russian Soyuz TMA spacecraft roaring skyward from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
Those "cash and carry" flights involved clients Dennis Tito and Mark Shuttleworth. Each shelled out $20 million for their orbital adventure.
"Over the next 18 months, there will be three Soyuz flights. Probably two of those will have our passengers on them," Anderson told SPACE.com.
Licensed to launch
Other offerings by Space Adventures include a variety of space training activities such as zero gravity and supersonic jet flights. They also have their eye on suborbital space treks.
The Space Adventures' suborbital program, currently in development, will consist of a four-day training period and a 90-minute spaceflight. The company anticipates suborbital spaceflights to commence in the 2007-08 timeframe. The current price for the program is $102,000.
"I am very encouraged with the successful flights of SpaceShipOne last year and the progression of the legislation process in developing appropriate regulations for the industry, but, there is much more to be done," Anderson related.
In this regard, the Federal Aviation Administration's Office of Commercial Space Transportation should make obtaining a launch license for a qualified reusable launch vehicle "reasonable," Anderson said.
"That sword cuts both ways," Anderson added. "Not everyone should be able to get one. We don't want people getting a launch license and killing passengers. But people should not have to spend a billion dollars to get a license either."
Warning: hocus pocus rocketry
Warning: There is also a bit of hucksterism going on.
Viewgraph visionaries are on the scene with little money, but touting a pet rocket design, Anderson confirmed. "We are constantly contacted by somebody that has a better mouse trap, and they want to show you how it works...but they've got no money for it."
"We need to maintain the credibility of the industry," Anderson said. "If there's too much hocus pocus, then it all kind of blows away in smoke."
"The question is going to be the long-term market and at what price," said Rich Pournelle director of business development at XCOR Aerospace of Mojave, California. The firm is developing and producing safe, reliable, and reusable rocket engines and rocket powered vehicles.
Among its projects, XCOR is working on the Xerus, a rocket-powered suborbital vehicle. It would take off from a runway and attain high altitude, high speed flight. The company has identified three markets that their craft could service: conducting microgravity research experiments, launch micro-satellites into Earth orbit, as well as flying passengers to the edge of space.
Ultimately, a passenger's ticket price for a suborbital spree will come down after several hundred people have flown, Pournelle said. He pointed out that in 1990 a T-1 connection to the Internet cost $1 million a year. Now the equivalent service is $19.99 a month.
"Don't think something like that can't happen to space transportation," Pournelle advised. If space tourism is to be successful as a business, he said, there's need to move successful programs to having successful products.
"The biggest thing that's going to move markets to this industry is people making money," Pournelle concluded.
Leonard David is the Senior Space Writer with SPACE.com