Yesterday the European aerospace company EADS Astrium announced its proposal to develop a suborbital vehicle to serve the space tourism market. While this is a new design, the concept of operations is almost identical to what Rocketplane Global has been developing for several years: a vehicle the size of a business jet that takes off under jet power, ignites a rocket engine at altitude to fly a suborbital trajectory, then land again under jet power. If nothing else, the Rocketplane people should feel pleased that concept has been “borrowed” by a big aerospace company (even though Astrium’s actual vehicle design is somewhat different from the Rocketplane XP.) It also appears that those earlier reports about the use of an A380F as a carrier aircraft turned out to be unfounded.
EADS didn’t release a lot of technical details about the vehicle design, but one thing about it struck me as odd. Look at the seating design of the cabin:
I can understand why the designed put the seats sideways: it makes it easy for passengers to look out windows, and may allow for a shorter passenger cabin. However, during ascent, this design means that the g-forces experienced by passengers will be on the Gy vector: across the body from left to right (or right to left, depending on how you’re oriented), which doesn’t seem as preferable as taking the g-forced through the body on the Gx vector. One of the features of the SpaceShipTwo cabin, for example, is the movable seat, so that the g-forces go through the Gx vector on both launch and reentry.
So what does Astrium’s entry into the market mean for space tourism in general, and other companies in the market? The endorsement of the suborbital space tourism concept by one of the world’s largest aerospace companies does certainly give industry an additional air of legitimacy, although it’s not clear just how important or necessary that endorsement is (except, perhaps, in the eyes of some contrarians.) And the addition of new ventures may increase the likelihood that one or more of them are eventually successful.
However, how seriously should this proposal be taken? According to the BBC Astrium estimates that it will cost €1 billion (US$1.3 billion) to develop the vehicle, and that the company will seek additional investment. They plan to charge €150,000-200,000 (US$195,000-265,000) per ticket, which puts them on the high end of known prices, particularly compared to Virgin’s $200,000 list price. It’s tough to see how the business plan for this would close, given the huge investment required: at the €200K ticket price, that means a revenue per flight of €800K. That would mean Astrium would have to fly the vehicle 1,250 times to recoup their investment—and that assumes a marginal cost per flight of zero! That’s sharply different from other companies, which require anywhere from five to 20 times less money to develop their vehicles, making it much more likely they can fly enough to pay off the investment.
A conspiratorially-minded person might wonder if this is an example of what’s known in the computer industry as FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt): by playing up their experience and putting such a high price tag on the venture, it could create uncertainty in the market that smaller, less experienced companies can pull off their plans. That may not be an intentional effect, but it is something to look out for in the months to come.