The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Garvey Space rocket launch
Partnerships between universities and launch vehicle developers, like the one between Cal State Long Beach and Garvey Spacecraft Corp on the Prospector series of rockets (above) may make it more feasible to develop reusable sounding rockets. (credit: J. Mullin/GSC)

The commercial suborbital sounding rocket market: a role for RLVs?

The current total US market for high altitude sounding rockets with payloads in the 50 to 200 kilogram range and apogees in excess of 100 kilometers is roughly 100 launches annually. At an average of one million dollars charged per launch, one might conclude that a real market exists for RLVs filling this niche.

At present, this market is essentially filled by solid-fuelled ELVs. What is the potential for market entry by a newcomer with the proverbial bright idea conceived in a garage?

The RLV concept

Developing an RLV might look attractive since the vehicle can be reused and operating costs might potentially approach propellant costs per flight. If it isn’t trashed after a few flights, the manufacturing cost can be spread over a number of flights. However, developing an RLV with investment capital for this existing market makes no investment sense.

Developing an RLV with investment capital for this existing market makes no investment sense.

An accepted rule of thumb for high risk speculative investments is that they should return at least 18 percent annually on capital (Ref. 1). Based on a few startups that have considered this field, a total optimistic investment of perhaps $5 million might result in a workable prototype vehicle. Personally, I believe this figure to be low by some integer multiple, but we will use that development cost anyway. A return of 18 percent would require that at least $900,000 annually return to the investors from the ongoing revenue stream.

Remember that dividends are paid from corporate after tax dollars. If foreign sales are involved, ITAR and other assorted export controls become a potential issue and legal costs for regulatory compliance escalate accordingly.

The estimates given above suggest that the total revenue from the US suborbital sounding rocket market is roughly $100 million annually. At least one RLV startup is offering future flights to 100 kilometers at $250 per kilogram (Ref. 2). A 200-kg payload would result in $50,000 revenues for the flight by this startup. If the entire US market were to be captured at this admittedly attractive price, 100 flights would result in revenues of $5 million annually.

Our required after tax return of $900,000 divides out to $9,000 per flight. We assume that the hypothetical RLV operations involve a full-time team of five employees averaging $75,000 fully burdened annual salaries each (well below market averages), and we might assume $1,000 per flight for propellants. Fixed costs could be converted to a per flight basis by dividing annual costs by 100. Look at the following set of estimated expenses per flight:

RLV flight costs at 100 per year

AreaFlight Cost
Investor Profit on sunk R&D$9,000
Federal Corporate Taxes (ignoring NOL carried forward)12,300
Range and Spaceport Fees1,000
Launch Insurance1,000
RLV Operations Staff3,750
Plant (with utilities)240
R&D for Future Development1,000
Lost Vehicle Sinking Fund500
Support Staff1,000
Regulatory Compliance500
Catchall (Including Margin)28,810
Total Expenses Charged Against Revenues50,000

If you don’t like my numbers, use your own. Range and spaceport fees are probably wildly underestimated in this table.

Killers in this model include R&D overruns for vehicle development, time to market (which also runs up personnel costs), failure to capture 100 percent of the market, and others. For example, if R&D costs are doubled (most R&D costs more and takes longer than anticipated), the expected minimum investor return jumps by another $9,000 per flight. If market share is only 50 percent rather than 100 percent, revenues per flight are reduced to $25,000, which eats into the “margin” substantially.

The table shown above ignores interest costs, state and local taxes of all types, and numerous other expense categories. The table also seriously underestimates payroll and regulatory compliance costs.

How can we make this work with better odds of success?

Raise prices: Rather than $50,000 per flight, competition might be possible with revenues in the $500,000 per flight range. This is an exercise in price cutting competition against existing suppliers and an established market and is critically sensitive to range and insurance costs.

Increase market size: If one believes in the “build it and they will come” philosophy, the market will increase passively. Otherwise, add a line to the above table for sales and marketing staff and another for advertising. I suspect the academic market, which is largely served by free rides manifested on existing launchers, would not enlarge much unless there are significant increases in space-related research grant funding opportunities.

A university consortium could develop a suborbital RLV or even a nanosat launcher to be used by consortium members for academic projects.

ELV threat: The shift from liquid-fuelled sounding rockets to solid-fuelled vehicles was driven by at least two factors: legacy engineering from larger tactical missiles or smaller strategic missiles and by the high development cost and finicky nature of pump-fed liquid versus solid systems. At present, an startup with a largely legacy sounding rocket design is UP Aerospace (Ref. 3). This dropped their upfront development costs to the point where they can afford to enter the market. Another approach for liquid-fuelled ELVs is to use composite propellant tanks that can supply pressure-fed motors and still be low mass compared to similar strength metallic tanks. Avoiding propellant turbopumps reduces the system parts count markedly. Microcosm’s Scorpius Space Launch Company uses this approach (Ref. 4).

A solution

Get others to pay for the R&D. This was partially done by UP Aerospace as mentioned above. This also suggests a role for university-corporate partnerships in which the university side uses specific development topics for educational efforts, such as senior engineering design classes, and gives out academic credit instead of money. The university gets a piece of the corporation for its development foundation in return and rental income on some of its facilities. To some extent, this is the approach used by Garvey Spacecraft Corporation with California State University at Long Beach (Ref. 5) and by Flometrics with the San Diego State University and with the University of California at San Diego (Ref. 6). Interestingly, Garvey has flown a Microcosm composite oxidizer tank (Ref. 7).

Structures to implement a solution

An approach I favor is forming a university consortium analogous to those that design, build, and operate large cooperative research assets, such as telescopes and particle colliders. That consortium could develop a suborbital RLV or even a nanosat launcher to be used by consortium members for academic projects. Since the consortium would design and develop the vehicles, participating universities would be more likely to use them for student research under some type of cost-sharing arrangement with federal granting agencies.

Dr. Steve Harrington proposed something a bit different recently:

If you took all the money invested in projects in the last 20 years, and invested in one project, it could succeed. More underfunded projects are not what we need. The solution is for an investment and industry group to develop a business plan and get a consortium to build a vehicle. There is a lot of talent, and many people willing to work for reduced wages and invest some of their own company’s capital. Whether it is a sounding rocket, suborbital tourist vehicle or an orbit capable rocket, the final concept and go/no go decision should be made by accountants, not engineers or dreamers (Ref. 8).

I would concur with Dr. Harrington’s final remark except I would expand the decision making group to include management and business experts nominated by the consortium members with whatever technical input they needed.


  1. F. Eilingsfeld and D. Schaetzler: The Cost of Capital for Space Tourism Ventures. Proceedings of the 2nd ISST, Daimler-Chrysler GmbH, Berlin, German, 1999.
  2. Masten Space Systems, Inc. web site:, Sept. 29, 2008.
  3. UP Aerospace, Inc. web site:
  4. Microcosm, Inc. web site:, Sept. 29, 2008.
  5. Garvey Spacecraft Corporation web site:, Sept. 29, 2008 and John Garvey, personal communication, Aug. 13, 2008.
  6. Flometrics web site:, Sept. 29, 2008.
  7. Garvey Spacecraft Corporation, loc. cit.
  8. Steve Harrington, Space Access Society Annual Meeting, Phoenix, AZ, Mar. 29, 2008.