Bill Nelson Hails Commercial Suborbital Space Research

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Florida Senator Bill Nelson

Florida Senator Bill Nelson

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Sen. Bill Nelson PR) - Not just tourism, but university classes in space are right around the corner.  That’s what came to light in testimony today at a U.S. Senate hearing on the looming commercial uses of space.

In fact, at least one well-known American university already has made a down payment on a Virgin Galactic flight.  That’s the company that just two weeks ago launched SpaceShip Two and completed its first rocket-powered flight.

“Purdue has a down payment on a spot on a Virgin Galactic science flight,” Dr. Steven Collicott testified at Thursday’s Senate hearing.  “ … And I do look forward to the day a potential Ph.D. student walks into my office and says, “Well, professor, I flew into space for my Master’s degree.  What do you have to offer?”

Dr. Collicott, a professor at Purdue’s School of Aeronautics and Astronautics, was one of four commercial space experts who testified at the Senate Commerce Committee’s Science and Space Subcommittee hearing earlier today.

Recent market studies – including one just last year commissioned by the Federal Aviation Administration and Space Florida – suggest that space tourism industry could generate more than $1 billion over the next decade.

“In fact,” said Capt. Michael Lopez-Alegria, a former NASA astronaut and current president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, “universities and other research groups have already purchased some seats, and I would expect that only to increase as the price comes down.”

Right now, witnesses said, prices start at a little less than $100,000 per seat and go up to about $200,000.

“It’s realistically going to get to the point where universities can buy a seat to send their students to space,” said U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, chairman of the Senate’s Science and Space Subcommittee and co-author of the legislative plan that helps get private space ventures started in consort with NASA.

“You might send your class to the edge of space, go Mach 3, couple minutes of Zero-G, and then come back,” Nelson said. “That’s pretty exciting.”

The Florida lawmaker ought to know.  He flew aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia on a six-day mission orbiting the Earth in 1986.

Here’s the transcript of the testimony from today on commercial uses of space.  Video is available on Nelson’s YouTube channel by clicking here.

Hearing Transcript

Nelson: … Captain you’re so right in pointing out the huge difference between Mach 3 and Mach 25, but right now as you pointed out the space tourism market is with regard to Mach 3 to get up to sub-orbit have a few minutes of weightlessness and then come right back.

What kind of revenues do you see being generated from this space tourism kind of experience over the next few years?

Captain Lopez-Algeria: Thanks chairman, for the question. I should refer you to a study that was done by the Tauri group that was released last year commissioned by the FAA and by Space Florida. I think it came out last summer and if memory serves they, with some very I would say conservative assumptions, predicted that the market over the next decade would be about 600 million dollars. But that was, again, a pretty suppressed view. They had a gross scenario where the revenue was much much higher than that. Now that’s for the entire suborbital industry of which they determined that 80 percent or so was driven by tourism about 10 percent by research and the remaining 10 percent was divided into 6 different other smaller markets.

Nelson: And so right now the cost for a tourist to go in one of these up to the edge of space where they can see the curvature, a couple minutes of zero-G and then return. The cost is what, a few hundred thousand dollars per seat?

Captain Lopez-Algeria: I think the lowest price that  I’ve seen is a little less than a hundred-thousand dollars and the high end is around two-hundred thousand dollars.

Nelson: So realistically over time will that cost come down per seat?

Captain Lopez-Algeria: Absolutely, I mean I think the providers are counting on that and this technology that I mentioned  that XCOR demonstrated will make their vehicle be a lot like an airplane where you land it, the fuel is nontoxic – it’s basically jet fuel – you put the hose on the airplane you gas it up and you go again.  So they could fly several times a day and clearly the more times you fly the more you amortize your fixed cost and the cost per seat will go down.

Nelson: So then it’s realistic to expect that it’s going to get to the point where universities could buy a seat to send Dr. Collicott’s students?

Captain Lopez-Algeria: I would say I would point out that  in fact that they already have universities and other research groups have purchased some seats and I would expect that only to increase as the price comes down as you say.

Nelson: That’s pretty exciting isn’t it Dr. Collicott that you might send your class to space to the edge of space go Mach 3, couple minutes of zero-G and then come back?

Dr. Collicott: Yes it is, Chairman. It’s no secret Purdue has a down payment on a spot on a Virgin Galactic science flight. I’m not going to fly. We are anticipating 200 pounds of automated payload to advance high-tech Indiana industry. Certainly when word got out a large number of graduate students came to my office interested in the opportunity and even had good discussions with risk management at Purdue about the feasibility and it seemed to me to them it was just new technology to an old question. We need to go do research, we need go do activities whether it’s researchers in Antarctica or wherever, and so to me it was really reassuring that it’s not entirely new news and I do look forward to the day a potential PHD student walks into my office and says, “well professor I flew into space for my Master’s degree what do you have to offer?”

Nelson: Well maybe at that point we’ll have orbital hotels or laboratories that would enable a student to go into orbit by going Mach 25.