What does Astrium’s decision mean for suborbital spaceflight?

Rob Coppinger reported this week that Astrium has put on hold “indefinitely” its plans for a suborbital spaceplane. Astrium, a division of European aerospace giant EADS, announced plans for the “space jet” at the Paris Air Show in 2007, but there had been little visible progress in the vehicle’s development since then, beyond some propulsion work, as Astrium tried to raise a significant amount of money—on the order of €1 billion—to proceed with the vehicle’s development. According to Coppinger, Astrium decided in January to put the project on hold, blaming the “world economic situation” for making it difficult to secure funding. (Astrium, though, has kept the space plane section on its web site.)

So is this a sign of retrenchment in the space tourism market? Not necessarily. Astrium stood out as an exception: a large, established company in a market dominated by small entrepreneurial firms, who believe they can develop their vehicles for a small fraction of Astrium’s estimated cost (and in today’s market it’s difficult for any company to raise over a billion dollars for any kind of venture). Some suggested that Astrium was not interested in space tourism at all, instead looking at other applications for the vehicle or as a testbed for technology development, like LOX/methane engines.

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