Private space companies probably can expect at least 44 paying passengers for trips to orbit in the next 10 years, NASA has told Congress, but the price per seat could be higher than the U.S. government already is paying for rides on Russia’s Soyuz capsule.
The agency’s congressionally mandated assessment of the market for the commercial cargo and crew transport to low Earth orbit (LEO) — the centerpiece of U.S. space policy for the post-shuttle era — carries no cost estimates, and is based largely on extrapolated historical data and projections by two firms that aren’t directly involved in building the commercial systems NASA needs to deliver astronauts to the International Space Station.
Phil McAlister, acting director for commercial spaceflight at NASA headquarters and one of the report’s authors, says it’s too early to put a price tag on commercial human spaceflight.
“Every program’s got risks,” he says. “We don’t know for certain five years in advance what’s going to happen in 2016, what the landscape’s going to be like in 2017. All we can say for certain is at this point it looks like a very reasonable strategy to go about.”
The bottom-line assessment presented to Congress, as required by the three-year NASA authorization act adopted late last year, is a “lower end” of 44 individual human flights over the report’s 10-year span, and an “upper end” of 329-259 seats to orbit, not counting the eight seats and 26,400 lb. of cargo a year NASA plans to buy to get its astronauts and those of its non-Russian partners to the space station and keep them supplied.
Based on a “generic” consumption rate of 10.3 lb. of cargo per day per International Space Station (ISS) crewmember, the NASA team that drafted the assessment calculated a total cargo load of 7,170 lb. to LEO at the lower end, and 51,920-59,530 lb. at the upper end, over the 10-year period.
Those estimates, in turn, are based on projections supplied to NASA by Space Adventures, the Virginia-based travel agency that has sold Soyuz flights to the ISS, and Bigelow Aerospace, which is developing a commercial space station infrastructure in LEO.
If Bigelow’s plans work out, the Las Vegas-based company’s inflatable modules would be the only other destination in LEO for commercial cargo and crew vehicles, and NASA’s assessment is based largely on Bigelow’s projections. Bigelow told NASA it anticipates 30 flights with three to five passengers each to its first operational station, and 45-60 flights of three to five passengers each to a larger station planned for launch two years later. On the basis of those expectations, and historical data on the number of nations that have sent their astronauts to space, the NASA group calculated a minimum of 36 individual astronaut flights over 10 years paid for by governments in the “sovereign-client” market, and a maximum of 186-216.
Additional commercial flights would come from space tourism — wealthy individuals willing to pay millions for the adventure of spaceflight. Space Adventures has sold eight Soyuz flights to the ISS since 2001, and extrapolating that figure over the next 10 years gives the lower end of the space-tourism market. The upper end was provided by Space Adventures, which predicts another 143 passengers to the ISS and other destinations like the planned Bigelow facilities.
The full report is available at http://www.nasa.gov/news/reports/index.html.