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Lowering The Bar

My latest piece at Tech Central Station is up, about how suborbital space transports may revolutionize space programs overseas as well, and its potential implications for national security.

Posted by Rand Simberg at August 15, 2003 07:20 AM
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Excerpt: In his new Tech Central Station column, Rand Simberg sees a potential for moving on to the next stage from space exploration's long childhood: After decades, ruts as deep as this are hard to get out of, but we may...
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Tracked: August 16, 2003 08:47 AM

I've always wondered if UPS or other package delivery companies have expressed any intrest in suborbital transportation?

It always seemed to me to be a logical evolution for their business.

Posted by Matt at August 15, 2003 08:48 AM

Matt -

Why, exactly? What would the advantage be?

Posted by Phil at August 15, 2003 02:19 PM

The speed in delivery is the only advantage I can see, assuming the suborbital could land at any runway and didn't cost too much per flight.

Posted by ruprecht at August 15, 2003 04:25 PM

I have heard FedEx has expressed interest in the concept.

Posted by Mike Puckett at August 15, 2003 05:57 PM

Anybody read "Friday" by R. H. Heinlein? Remember the semiballistics? Heavy G's at take off, a period of free fall, and a glide landing that can't be redone? (kinda like the current shuttle...once you start your approach, you're committed.) And they give point to point travel measured in hours rather than tens of hours.

Posted by FDC at August 15, 2003 06:49 PM

Quite a bit of late-40s/early-50s science fiction had an operating assumption that suborbital space transport was going to be a very profitable business. Look at Robert Heinlein's Rocket Ship Galileo for one example -- he posited an immense amount of suborbital traffic, but essentially nothing orbital... and the "first" lunar landing was done with a more-or-less homebuilt conversion of one of these suborbital rockets to nuclear power.

His assumptions were pretty much what Rand is saying: mass-produced, heavily reused vehicles are fairly cheap, especially if they are single-stage. My guess is that RAH wasn't that wrong.

Posted by Troy at August 15, 2003 06:51 PM

I hear and read a lot about the space tourism aspect of sub orbital flight, but I hadn?t heard much about other businesses that might be interested in this technology.

Reading the article about sub orbital flights got me thinking about who might be interested in fast transportation to almost any point in the world.

I then remembered that in the early history of aviation, airmail delivery was the bread and butter of the early airlines.

Because of the increased speed of delivery that could be obtained by using a sub orbital flight, I thought package delivery companies might be interested in the development of this type of technology.

Instead of next day delivery, you could have same day delivery anywhere in the world.

It also seemed to me that the requirements of reliability, fast turn around and cargo capacity that a freight company would require would help push the development of a sub orbital craft.

I was wondering if anyone had any information about this?

These are the questions I can think of off the top of my head.

What currently existing companies might be interested in this?

What cost per pound would be economical for this type of delivery? What other costs would have to be addressed?

How many vehicles would be needed?

Have any of the X-Prize contestants or the new start up rocket companies considered this as a business opportunity?

Are reusable craft really needed? Or can expendable launchers be made at a low enough cost by using mass production?

Is there really a market for this type of service? Or are the existing services already fast enough?

Any thoughts or references would be appreciated.

Posted by Matt at August 15, 2003 07:57 PM

suborbital capable rockets won't cut it for package delivery. Past a distance of about 2,000 miles, the energy requirements are about the same for orbital and sub-orbital.
Fedex did look at it in the 80's, and may have even invested in a company or two.
Thriftyspace, an ex X-Prize contender, had its initial business model based on package delivery.

Posted by Jayrtfm at August 15, 2003 10:53 PM

suborbital capable rockets won't cut it for package delivery. Past a distance of about 2,000 miles, the energy requirements are about the same for orbital and sub-orbital.

That's not necessarily a problem, since energy requirements aren't a particularly strong driver of launch costs. It might be a market that some of the early players aim for, and it will help gradually expand the performance envelope out to orbit.

Posted by Rand Simberg at August 16, 2003 09:54 AM

I think suborbital might be more efficient than super/hypersonic atmospheric transport as the majority of the flight profile is above the atmosphere an the demons aof noise and drag are minimized.

Posted by Mike Puckett at August 16, 2003 05:03 PM

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