Sander Olson Reports From the 12th annual FAA Space Transportation Conference

Sander Olson provided this report from the Space Transportation conference.

Last week (Feb 5-6, 2009), I [Sander Olson] attended the 12th annual FAA Space Transportation Conference in Virginia, which is dedicated to promoting commercial space flight. It was a fascinating conference, and I wanted to share what I gleaned from the conference. Here is some of what was stated at the conference.

-During the past 25 months, the first spaceport was unveiled in New Mexico, and space companies such as Virgin Galactic, SpaceX, Bigelow, Orbital Sciences, Xcor, and Armadillo aerospace began operations. The next 25 months should be equally active. It was during the 1930s depression that aviation entered its golden age, and many major airlines were born. So the current recession/depression should not necessarily impede the commercialization of space.

– The current cost for space tourism (spending 10 days on ISS) is about $35 million. However, during the next few years sub-orbital flights should be offered for only a couple of hundred thousand dollars. Virgin Galactic has already received $39 million from individuals who have booked sub-orbital flights, and that is a tiny fraction of the potential market.

-Currently 80% of the focus of commercial space flight is space tourism. However, Virgin Galactic has designed the SpaceShip2 and WhiteKnight2 to be inherently versatile – WhiteKnight2 can be modified to reach altitudes of 140 kilometers. The potential missions for SpaceShip 2 include public outreach, aeronautical research (space radiation, ionosphere, micro-gravity), astronaut training, and small satellite deployments (200 kilogram satellite to 800 kilometer orbit). Virgin Galactic plans on attaining initial profitability through space tourism and then expanding to these other markets, thereby growing the market. Assuming that SpaceShip2 and WhiteKnight2 are successful, Virgin Galactic will almost certainly come out with a WhiteKnight3 and SpaceShip3.

-On September 22, 2008 the Spacex Falcon 1 achieved orbit. Spacex will put 420 Kg payloads into orbit for only $8 million, which is an order of magnitude less than current options. The Falcon 9 will be able to put 12,500 KG into LEO, and Falcon 9 heavy will be able to put 28,000 KG to LEO. Falcon 9 should launch in 2010. NASA paid Spacex $224 million for successful demonstrations, and will rely heavily on Spacex to resupply the ISS. Spacex plans on sending cargo to the ISS in 2010. Spacex’s Dragon platform could send both manned (7 passengers) and cargo trips(> 3,000 KG) to the ISS on a regular basis.

-The Government, military, and NASA are now all actively supporting these civilian space efforts. Spacex in particular has agressive plans to dominate the space launch business by offering frequent launches and launch costs that are a small fraction of current costs. Spacex CEO Elon Musk has huge plans for the company and is commited to its success.

– Several space development companies are currently in “stealth mode” but have ambitious plans. One company is called Excalibur Almaz USA, Inc. Another is Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origins. Blue Origins has the backing of Bezos’s $8 billion fortune.