To understand the enthusiasm and efforts by those who seek to move from our current, national human space flight program to one run by commercial entities begins with the 2002 Futron “Space Tourism Market Study: Orbital Space Travel And Destinations With Suborbital Space Travel“. It is this study that forms the intellectual foundation for those who believe space tourism will soon be a profitable market, including especially those in the Executive Branch and at NASA. All subsequent studies on commercial human space flight derive from the conclusions of the Futron study and branches to other studies to some greater or lesser degree.
But the Futron study’s predictions have proven wildly inaccurate. For example, the study predicted that by 2010 there would be roughly 1,000 suborbital passengers and by 2011 15 orbital passengers–to date, there have been no suborbital passengers and 7 orbital passengers have flown since 2001. On January 12 of this year, Space Adventures and Russia announced that orbital space tourism would resume in 2013, with 1-2 passengers per year, the same year that the Futron study predicted that there would be 2,000 suborbital and 20 orbital passengers.
Given the importance, inspirational or otherwise, as well as the missed predictions of the Futron study, it’s important to understand what the study’s authors got right and wrong. Certainly, the Futron study didn’t envision every single commercial satellite launch company (Boeing, LockMart, Kistler, Roton, Sea Launch, etc.) either filing for bankruptcy or being forced into a marriage of convenience, as were Boeing and LockMart, to avert Ch. 11. The unanticipated difficulty of reaching space has caused hiccups for more than solely those who authored that study.
It took 31 years from the time of Kittyhawk for a commercially viable airliner to be developed. Since space is obviously much more difficult to safely access, after 66 years is the stage set for the first commercially viable space tourism rocket? What is the key to profitability for suborbital and orbital space tourism? Is it how efficiently the rocket launches tourists? If so, has rocket performance, as measured either by the propulsion system’s specific impulse or the percentage of payload to rocket weight, improved in 8 years since the Futron study was completed? What portion of potential profitability in space tourism hinges upon how the business is operated? Or is space tourism profitable only in so far as it is subsidized, either through direct contributions or indirectly through infrastructure and tax contributions? Why do the players in the space tourism market believe that their way of getting into suborbital or orbital space will make their efforts profitable? Lastly, what lessons might the disastrous experience of the commercial satellite launch market hold for the tourist launch market?
Acolytes of the 2002 Futron study in the White House and at NASA have been willing to forsake NASA’s current and future human space flight efforts in lieu of commercial cargo or crew launch capabilities that do not yet exist and the businesses undertaking those future efforts are as yet untested. This study is made available so that readers can make their own determination as to whether the study’s disciples are far-sighted visionaries or starry-eye’d idealists.Missions » ISS »