Fields of Dreams
Will starry-eyed entrepreneurs transform today's wide-open spaces into tomorrow's spaceports?
- By Ed Regis
- Air & Space magazine, May 2007
(Page 2 of 6)
What did back them up was a market study, issued in October 2002 by the Futron Corporation, a consulting firm located in Bethesda, Maryland. In a 50-page report entitled “Space Tourism Market Study: Suborbital Space Travel,” the company claimed to be providing an objective assessment of an unknown and unproven market. Futron had commissioned Zogby International, a polling firm, to survey 450 well-off individuals in an effort to gauge their willingness to pay handsome fees for a space experience. The survey considered factors such as income levels, vacation and leisure spending, physical fitness, perception of the riskiness of traveling into space, willingness to undergo a week of training and to experience zero-G flight, and so on. Zogby asked whether the chief appeal of a spaceflight was the view of Earth from space, the acceleration of a rocket launch, or something else. The company even fine-tuned the results by adjusting for those whose desire to fly into space was tied up with being a pioneer, one of the first to go.
The Futron study’s conclusion was that by 2021, some 15,700 passengers would be flying into suborbital space per year, generating total annual revenues of $786 million. A separate study of orbital flight demand concluded that in the same time period, up to 60 passengers would be spending $300 million per year, for total revenues of almost $1.1 billion annually. That was not quite the “multibillion-dollar industry” spaceport boosters had forecast, but still, it was big money.
But then last August 2006, Futron issued another report: “Suborbital Space Tourism Demand Revisited.” The new study’s conclusion was slightly sobering: Despite the fact that SpaceShipOne had won the X Prize in the interim, the projected demand for such flights had actually declined. The annual passenger load predicted by 2021 had fallen from the original estimate of 15,700 to 13,000, while anticipated revenues fell from $786 million to $676 million. The price of a suborbital spaceflight, by contrast, had risen from the original figure of $100,000 to $200,000, which happened to be exactly the sum that Virgin Galactic was then quoting for a flight aboard SpaceShipTwo.
Futron theorized that the weakening of projected demand was due to two main factors. One was the doubling of ticket prices; the other was something that had plagued space ventures from the very beginning: delays. The original 2002 study had assumed that commercial suborbital flight would begin in 2006. But 2006 had come and had almost gone, and not a single manned commercial flight had been made, nor had any of the required space vehicles rolled out of the factory.
In the end, there was no getting around the fact that even though they were based on polls and were the product of intelligent analysis, all of these prophecies fell into the realm of sheer theory. What an interviewee will say in a telephone call and what the same person would actually do when faced with the real thing are two entirely separate matters. The people involved were not spending any folding money or putting their lives on the line; they were merely taking part in a survey.
The glib auguries of a “multibillon-dollar industry,” therefore, were pretty much wishful thinking based on guesswork, a phenomenon otherwise known as hype. Sooner or later the reality of the situation will have to be faced.
If we define a spaceport as a site dedicated to launching rockets that can carry tourists into space for private profit, the blunt fact is: There are no spaceports. There are military and federal rocket-launch complexes that have been converted or expanded for commercial uses (see “Payloads Other Than People,” p. 67). There is the Kodiak Launch Complex in Alaska, which has the dual distinction of being the first licensed launch site not co-located with a federal facility and the first U.S. launch site built since the 1960s. But as for spaceports—as defined, there are no such animals in the jungle.
The Oklahoma Spaceport, for example, is a former U.S. Air Force facility (the Clinton-Sherman Air Force Base) that during the 1950s was home to Strategic Air Command B-52s. Today the field consists of a 13,500-foot runway, a couple of abandoned-looking buildings, a control tower, and the most crucial item of all, an on-site golf course. (Didn’t Al Shepard hit a golf ball on the moon?) Rocketplane, the Oklahoma City commercial spaceflight firm, was to be the anchor tenant. But last June, when the Oklahoma Space Industry Development Authority requested a $2 million appropriation for infrastructure upgrades, the state legislature refused. (“We’re considering what to do about that,” said a Rocketplane spokesperson last October.)