Promoting Suborbital RLV Market
by Jefferson Morris, as published in Aerospace Daily, February 2003.
Members of the newly formed Suborbital Institute visited Capitol Hill this week for a series of briefings intended to raise awareness of the emerging market for suborbital reusable launch vehicles (RLVs).
The Institute is a trade association made up of companies who are exploring applications for suborbital RLVs. Using a stair-step approach, the companies are attempting first to develop small, "sustainable niche" markets, according to Pat Bahn, CEO of TGV Rockets, Inc. and Washington director of the Suborbital Institute.
"Our idea is to walk before you run - not to do the largest missions, but to do the smaller missions," Bahn said in a briefing in Washington Feb. 10. He compared the suborbital RLV market to the aviation market in the 1920s, which began with seemingly "trivial" applications such as wing walking, air shows, and air races.
"These were all enablers," he said. "These were all things people wanted to do. No one stood up and said, 'Aviation is only for science and noble exploration.'"
The current suborbital market is focused on expendable sounding rockets for applications such as national missile defense tests and high-altitude, astronomical, and micro-gravity research missions.
According to a recent report by the Aerospace Corp. that was prepared for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, many commercial space transportation companies have turned to the suborbital market following the collapse of the low-earth orbiting satellite market during the late 1990s.
"There are a number of current and emerging suborbital market opportunities upon which suborbital RLVs can capitalize," the report says.
According to the report, these markets include military surveillance, commercial/civil earth imagery, fast package delivery, high-speed passenger transportation, media, advertising, sponsorship, space tourism, and even "space diving" - in which skydivers would jump from suborbital RLVs with special parachutes.
Companies developing suborbital RLVs include Kelly Space and Technology, Pioneer Rocketplane, Starcraft Boosters, Inc., TGV Rockets, XCOR Aerospace and Bristol Spaceplanes, according to the report.
The insurance industry and the lack of a distinct FAA regulatory regime are some of the key obstacles to the growth of the suborbital RLV industry, according to a statement from the Suborbital Institute.
The current launch vehicle insurance environment is "unsuitable for high flight rate vehicles," according to the Institute, because it was developed with expendable rockets in mind.
"Today, the commercial aviation insurance industry is not willing to provide liability insurance for RLVs up to the FAA-determined maximum probable loss (MPL)," the Institute says. "We propose that the federal government provide assistance in closing the gap between the liability insurance available from the aviation insurance industry and the MPL."
Similarly, the FAA's regulations for launch vehicles aren't well suited to suborbital RLVs because they were based on range safety rules for orbital vehicles derived from rocket artillery, rather than manned vehicles with high flight rates.
Part of the difficulty with licensing suborbital RLVs is because they are "right on the line" between aviation operations and space operations, according to Kelvin Coleman, special assistant for programs and planning for the FAA.
At the Feb. 10 briefing, Coleman said the FAA is determined not to use a "heavy regulatory hammer" with the emerging industry, "but at the same time ... we have a mission that says we have to protect the public."