Both SpaceX and Orbital Sciences plan to tap into additional markets by offering the new rockets used to launch their spacecraft, the Falcon 9 and Taurus II respectively, to satellite customers. But NASA could also create extra demand by rotating its ISS crews faster. “A lot of the researchers looking at the effects of long-term exposure to a weightless environment say that at about 120 days, they’re at the point of diminishing returns, and they would really like to see a new crew brought on,” says Valin Thorn, C3PO deputy program manager. “If funding permits, it might be an attractive option that would increase the annual flight rate to help enhance the market.” NASA also has the option of adding a fourth astronaut to its crew complement. Coupled with more frequent rotations, this would double the number of astronauts needing transport each year, from six to 12.
Thorn believes the space companies will find paying customers other than NASA. One such category of customers could be nations interested in spaceflight for prestige or technological and scientific projects, but who don’t want to be tagalongs on U.S. or Russian missions. “We’re hearing that many nations are interested in something that’s more autonomous. In a world where they could buy a spacecraft that was their spacecraft and have all their own crew … that’s a substantial market, possibly larger annually than the NASA market,” Thorn says. “And then, of course, there’s space tourism.”
The lure of space tourism is what’s driving interest in spaceports, most of which are intended to support suborbital vehicles giving passengers brief trips above the atmosphere. Often with the support of state governments, plans for new spaceports are underway, not just in traditional aerospace hot spots such as New Mexico or Florida, but also in places like Hawaii, Indiana, and Wisconsin. However, there are only a handful of operators, such as Virgin Galactic or Blue Origin, who have progressed even as far as technology demonstration flights.
John Gedmark, executive director of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, a Washington, D.C.-based trade association, admits that it could be another five to 10 years before suborbital operations expand to some of these new locations. But he says that “shouldn’t dissuade spaceports from beginning now to plan how they would take that on. That kind of infrastructure takes time and planning to come together.”
Ultimately, a shakeout in the coming years may not be a bad thing. “In time, there will be a market to support [as many players as now exist]. But in the near term, there probably won’t be enough, so right now it is kind of a horse race,” says NASA’s Thorn. “That’s why we want to bring along several; then we can afford to have some fail. The model doesn’t work if we’re trying to rely on free market commercial practices, and then if somebody has problems, we come along and rescue them.”