May 25 2015

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The development of LEO Space Tourism and secondary markets

Related Posts in this series:
An Examination of Delta-v in Cis-Lunar space

There are already profitable Space markets today: Communications (e.g. Satellite TV, Sirius Radio, INMARSAT), Earth Observing (in which I include general imagery, weather, cartography), and Positioning (GPS). I see these markets growing in customers and decreasing in cost over time, which likely will mean more competition and niche development. As manufacturing prices decrease, launch costs decrease while lift capacity increases, and open sources and miniature buses become more capable, new markets will become more viable.

Bottom line: Barriers to market entry will get lower, which will not only allow more competition within existing markets, but also will allow the development of new markets and services.

I’m going to look at LEO, MEO and GEO orbits in this post with an eye toward identifying potential new markets, and more specifically, dive in on how they might work.

Space Tourism

Let’s start with an obvious new(ish) market. I believe anywhere that humans can be, tourism will shortly follow. We’ve seen it with the ISS already — at a cost of over $50 million, you too can spend a couple of weeks at the ISS generally staying out of the way of all the work that the crew do up there. With the aforementioned lower launch costs, Space tourism becomes much more viable — I’d guess five years after SpaceX routinely recovers Falcon Heavy first and second stage boosters (so…say 2021). I’m guessing (again), but perhaps a tourist trip to space may cost around $150,000 — pricey, but affordable in a bucket-list kind of way. Kinda like an expensive, extended trip to Europe with all the bells and whistles.

LEO will be where the tourist market will reside, with orbits below 600 miles so that orbital stations are protected from radiation by the Earth’s magnetic field, which will negate the requirement for additional shielding. Even as more exotic tourist destinations develop (Moon, Mars), I think that LEO tourism will remain robust. It will serve both as a final destination and as a way-station for tourists/workers catching hops out to other destinations.

Bigelow Aerospace has the lead with orbital module development today, but if they have any success at all, they’ll have their fair share of competitors. But for going-forward purposes, let’s assume that Bigelow is the only commercial provider of orbital stations. The Russians and Chinese are both planning their own stations, and I’m sure that they’d be happy to take money off the hands of space tourists if they can arrange it.

Secondary Industries

nullI see several secondary industries sprouting from even a rudimentary tourism trade, as shown in the graphic to the right. At a minimum, I see maintenance requirements and culinary sciences as spin-offs. I’ll touch more on maintenance requirements a bit further below…suffice to say for now that producing and replacing parts is something that we have only barely touched upon with the ISS. I believe that the field for improvements (stronger, lighter, cheaper) is wide-open and will likely spawn its own industry and niche markets.

However, there will definitely be a revolution in space-based culinary sciences. Look at the effort to make authentic expresso on board the ISS. Even trained astronauts get tired of the same old reconstituted gruel every day — imagine a tourist who spends an arm and a leg for his/her ticket!

Now, don’t get me wrong. The first tourist packages will offer ISS-like experiences, with amenities akin to camping at the local state park. However, it won’t be long after there are multiple orbital destinations from which to choose that the competition between amenities offered will be fully joined. Some potential customers may be willing to pay a premium for quality food. At first, that quality food will be launched as supplies from Earth. Even with the aforementioned reduction in launch costs, it may be more cost effective to grow the food in orbit. Stations may have their own gardens, but my hunch is that there will be companies that specialize in orbital food production, and will own their own stations expressly for food production and research.

Farm stations may have a spin to their modules to produce some fraction of gravity…we really have not done much research in this field:

  • What is the minimum gravity required to produce a high yield of crop A? Crop B?
  • How much gravity is required for adequate meat growth on animals?
  • How best to compost food/animal/human waste in a micro-gravity/low-gravity environment that minimizes water while maximizing organic breakdown?
  • What advances are required to make an orbital station a mostly-closed eco system?

and so on…

Of course, if you rotate a station to enhance food production, that likely means that right on the heels of this development will be stations that rotate for the comfort of their passengers (both tourist and crew). Which means much larger stations so that there is a low RPM required for the desired gravity — too small a radius and all sorts of endomorphic havoc can be inflicted on the inner ear. Bigger stations have their own engineering and systems challenges, but nothing that is physically insurmountable.

In short, just from having to meet tourist needs, there are secondary and tertiary industries that will sprout (ed.: very punny) up to meet (ed.: another pun?) them. There will be a diversity of station design and function, with niches developing as stations become more advanced and increase in size. What’s cool is that I’m certain that there will be new services and products that haven’t even been thought of now that will come into existence that will likely drive diversity and station size/function even more.

Next up: the second big new space industry, and NASA’s role in Earth Orbit going forward.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.newspaceraces.com/2015/05/25/possible-new-supportable-profitable-markets-in-earth-orbit/

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