NASA Study Examines Commercial Space Market

A Boeing CST-100 crew module docks at a Bigelow Aerospace space station. (Credit: Boeing)

NASA recently released its Commercial Market Assessment for Crew and Cargo Systems. The report looks at high and low end estimates for the next decade based upon an extrapolation of existing flight rates and industry input. The assessment concludes:

NASA believes that the projections described in this report are more than sufficient to justify Government support for the development and demonstration of commercial cargo and crew systems, especially considering that the U.S. Government has a demonstrated need for commercial cargo and crew transportation to/from the ISS. According to one established aerospace company involved in NASA’s commercial crew efforts, this base Government market alone is sufficient to close its business case. The commercial markets assessed in this report provide a potential upside further strengthening the potential for success. NASA also believes its approach to cargo and crew system development will be more cost effective than a more traditional approach to space system development.

Key excerpts from the report are reproduced after the break.

Market Segments

This analysis found four market segments most likely to be enabled by such systems in that time period:

National Interests: This category includes countries lacking indigenous human space transportation capability who desire to send astronauts and cargo into space to perform scientific research, acquire technical knowledge, and increase national prestige.

Space Tourism: This category includes spaceflight participants who are not flying under the direct employment or financial sponsorship of a company or government organization.

Applied Research and Technology Development: This category includes customers interested in space-based research activities aboard in-space platforms, such as the ISS. Such research activities may lead to downstream commercial and/or societal application.

Other markets: This category includes satellite servicing, media, and entertainment and education markets

Crew and Cargo Demand

The “lower end” of the projection is essentially an extrapolation of historical flight rates, assuming there is no change in the historically-demonstrated flight rates for crew and cargo transportation services. The “upper end” of the projection incorporates industry inputs on the potential growth of the markets since industry has done the most analysis on the actual size of the markets and how those markets contribute to their specific business cases. Most likely, the actual flight rates for commercial cargo and crew systems over the next ten years will fall within the lower and upper end of the range. A precise forecast of flight rates would have limited utility at this time because of the major unknowns associated with the systems such as price, availability date, and the technical characteristics of the systems.

To be clear, this report does not characterize the “demand” for commercial cargo and crew services – something that is difficult to quantify at this stage. Instead, this report will show what is best described as “flight rate projections” of cargo and crew systems, constrained in many cases by the available supply and other factors. The actual demand for cargo and crew services could be many times the flight rate projections shown in this report. In addition, these projections do not include NASA ISS crew and cargo needs.

Space Tourism Flights


10-Year Projections

The lower end of the range for the space tourist market over the next 10 years is estimated to be eight astronaut flights (i.e., seats), by simply extrapolating the average historical flight rate. For cargo, the same assumption regarding the basic crew resupply requirements necessary to support astronauts on the ISS was used for spaceflight participants (10.3 lbs/day per crew member). Assuming that each flight lasts 12 days (the same as the historical experience), the associated cargo market cumulatively over the 10-year forecast period is projected to be approximately 990 pounds.

Space Adventures, the company which brokered every ISS space tourist flight to date, has developed its own forecast of future space tourist flights, taking into account development of commercial crew vehicles as well as the existence of orbiting space facilities besides the ISS. Their forecast calls for approximately 143 passengers flying through 2020 (including direct sales to individuals, lottery/media, corporate business and research, education and institutions). NASA projects the associated cargo to support those 143 astronaut flights to be approximately 17,700 pounds, based on an average stay time of 12 days and assuming the basic crew resupply requirements to equal those necessary to support astronauts on the ISS (10.3 lbs/day per crew member).

Currently, there are several growth constraints to the space tourism market:

  • The availability of crew transportation systems for non-professional astronauts;
  • The cost to the customer; and
  • The current lack of a destination besides the ISS.

National Interest Flights


10-Year Projection

In order to establish the “Lower End” of the range for this market, the linear historical growth rate of the number of astronaut flights occurring annually (i.e., the trend line) was extrapolated into the future. This assumes that the historical flight experience will remain unchanged during the next 10 years. Based on this linear growth rate, the number of astronaut flights is projected to be 36 during the assessment period.

The upper end of the range for the National Interests market is based on input provided to NASA for the purposes of this report by Bigelow Aerospace. Bigelow Aerospace is targeting the National Interests market (also known as the Sovereign Client market) as a key part of its business strategy. Bigelow estimates that 30 flights will be accomplished during the assessment period to support its first operational space station. A second, larger space station is planned to be launched two years later and will require 45 – 60 flights will be accomplished to support that station during the assessment period. Each flight is planned to include three to five passengers total.

For the purposes of the upper-end estimation, NASA assumed two of the passengers on each flight are part of the National Interests market segment, this results in a total of 150 to 180 astronaut flights over the assessment period. Adding the lower end of the range of 36 astronaut flights, which represents flights to the ISS for visits or short duration flights to LEO, the grand total for the upper end of the range is 186 to 216 astronaut flights over the assessment period. Using the cargo estimate of 10.3 lbs/day per crew member and assuming 12 day missions, the total for cargo to support the astronaut flights is projected to be approximately 18,540 to 22,248 pounds. By adding the lower end cargo estimate to this projection, a grand total of 24,720 to 28,430 pounds is projected.

The market for transportation services to support national interests will be strongly impacted by the availability of an affordable destination and transportation services to deploy astronauts and provisions. Commercially operated space crew transportation systems would be a new mode of operation for these customers. To date, all national interest missions have been conducted by government-operated transportation systems. Nations would need to become comfortable with the use of commercially operated transportation systems in order for commercial operators to grow this market.

Applied Research and Technology Development

In addition to ISS-related utilization, there will be research and technology related cargo flown to other destinations, such as the Bigelow station or simply to LEO in a DragonLab or other free-flying carrier. For the contribution of this portion to the upper end of the range, the Bigelow flight projection was used: 30 flights during the assessment period for Bigelow Station #1; and 45 – 60 flights for Bigelow Station #2. Bigelow plans to launch major payloads “with the module”; hence, the amount of utilization-related hardware will be relatively small. For the purposes of this assessment, NASA assumed 75 pounds of cargo would be flown on each flight, for a total of 5,600 – 6,750 pounds of commercial non-ISS cargo over the assessment period. Adding together the ISS and non-ISS related portions provides a grand total of 9,500 – 13,400 pounds for commercial cargo.

The historical data used for the range represents a period when ISS activities were conducted under a different concept of the operations than what is in place today: assembly versus utilization. During the period of ISS assembly, resources for completing experiments were relatively limited. Today, the largest modules and research racks have been delivered to ISS, so more launch payload volume and mass is allocated to ISS utilization. Furthermore, more crew time is available for research because there are fewer ISS components to install and assemble. Secondly, the ISS Program notes that ―over the past decade funding for research (either from NASA or from private entities) and flight resources have never been available at the same time, and have fluctuated almost independently.‖ Accordingly, the history-based statistics represented in Figure 11 should not be considered an absolute upper limit.

Other Markets

During our analysis for this report, we found no detailed studies of the demand for satellite servicing, media and entertainment, and educational activities on the ISS or elsewhere in LEO that can be enabled by commercial cargo and crew vehicles, beyond the anecdotal evidence cited above. This suggests that these other markets will not be drivers for the initial commercial demand for cargo and crew transportation systems. Hence, lower and upper ranges are not provided. However, given that there has been some historical activity shown to exist and the fact that, over time, activity in these markets may expand, they have been included in this report.

Aggregated Projections

A key factor in this analysis is that the market for crew transportation drives the overall market. That is, in the case of the lower end of the cargo market, 100 percent comes from supplies needed to support the crew during missions. For the upper end of the assessment, cargo to support the crew is still by far the biggest component to the overall projection, with the Applied Research and Technology Development market the only cargo market (i.e. experiments and support equipment) which does not also have a crew component. This suggests that the development of commercial crew transportation systems is essential to enabling the overall market growth for commercial space transportation capabilities in LEO.

  • This is like an impersonation of a market report.. oh wait, it’s not like that, it is that.

    As I said last month, what does NASA know about the space market? What does *any* government agency know about commercial markets.