The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Atlas 5 launch
With limited commercial opportunities for vehicles like the Atlas 5, it may be time for the government to step in and help stimulate the market. (credit: ILS)

The commercial launch industry needs a boost

The satellite industry now grosses over $90 billion per year, according to the Satellite Industry Association’s most recent annual statistics report. That might seem like a healthy figure, but the prospects are in truth not so bright for the launch sector. In their 2004 forecast, the Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) predicts a flat market of about 18 commercial launches per year to geosynchronous orbit from 2004 through 2013.

Under these conditions, there’s just not much room for new competitors, and existing launch providers such as International Launch Services (ILS), Sea Launch, Arianespace, and others are all looking closely at their business plans, searching for ways to become more competitive. (See “Stagflation, overcapacity, and the commercial launch industry”, The Space Review, March 28, 2005.)

The launch industry needs a much-deserved boost. Will it come from NASA? Perhaps the space agency will begin farming out more launches, such as International Space Station (ISS) resupply, to commercial launch providers. After all, the Aldridge Commission urged NASA last year to outsource as many tasks as possible to private industry, and the NASA culture does seem on the face of it to have embraced the President’s Vision for Space Exploration.

In the meantime, relative newcomers like Elon Musk and his launch company SpaceX have their work cut out for them. In the near term, they may be able to carve a niche in the smallsat launch sector, for example: there is always room there for a new reliable, low-cost provider. However, the days of explosive growth for the launch industry, such as were seen in the late 1990’s, appear to be over.

The race to be the first group to build a permanent Moon base would create unprecedented demand for launch services and for the construction of supportive space infrastructure.

That there are difficult days ahead for the launch industry is unfortunate, especially since the coming doldrums could be prevented, and in fact reversed, by appropriate Congressional action. Now that the satellite market is becoming saturated, exponential growth in the launch industry could be reignited if a replacement incentive came online. What could that incentive be? It could well be the construction of the space infrastructure that will be needed to return humanity to the Moon, infrastructure—the transportation, utility, and facility structures—that will also be needed by the space-based businesses of the future.

In 1998, NASA sponsored a New Space Industries Workshop to peer into the future of space development. The final report of the workshop, titled New Space Industries for the Next Millennium, evaluated future space businesses such as tourism, space manufacturing, satellite services, space solar power, and more. The report makes fascinating reading. Today, though—seven years later—most of these businesses still do not exist, even in nascent form, in large part because the startup costs for building the necessary space infrastructure are simply prohibitive.

The Space Settlement Institute has already proposed a plan that would create a new space race, this time a commercial one, using the prospect of billions of dollars worth of lunar real estate as the incentive for the first private consortium to establish a permanent Moon base and regular spaceline. The race to be the first group to build a permanent Moon base would create unprecedented demand for launch services and for the construction of supportive space infrastructure. What is needed now is support in Congress for the legislation that would make it happen.

Without a multi-billion dollar incentive of some kind, the ascension of commercial enterprise into space will be long, slow, and painful, and may never reach its full potential. Meanwhile, the companies in the commercial launch industry will, for the next decade on out, find themselves embroiled in a dog-eat-dog competition just to keep their efforts in the black, when instead they should be reaping the mega-profits of the next frontier.