The Suborbital Road to Space: One Small Step for Man,
One Giant Leap for Mankind

by Pat Bahn, Karen Shea, and Eric Dahlstrom
(as published in Space Front Magazine: The Journal of the Space Frontier Foundation)


Cornelius Ryan in his epic "A Bridge too Far" documented a series of mistakes and over-reaching ambitions that led to the destruction of the Pegasus Airborne Division. What the British command was trying to do was not impossible, it was just very difficult and the fortunes of war led to disaster, instead of a successful campaign. A similar argument can be made for the multiple attempts to build commercial orbital launch vehicles. The idea is clearly possible, and there are even several government funded orbital launchers commercially available (Proton, Soyuz, Atlas, Delta, Ariane). The odds are high enough that fully commercial startup companies have been unable to succeed to date (Amroc, SSI, OTRAG, Rotary,,,). Governments with their immense resources have been able to sponsor developments despite early losses, while commercial firms have not been able to survive the teething pains. The best opportunities for commercial launchers lay in doing low risk suborbital flight. Suborbital flight promises to exploit promising new markets, solve problems in range safety, insurance and demonstrate reusability while producing income and providing a revenue stream to orbit.

Developing truly operational suborbital launchers will open the path to orbit far more effectively then any direct assault on the citadels of orbit. Sometimes it's faster and easier to grind away slowly at a problem then to try and attack it all at once.

Most people realize there is a significant problem in the orbital launch industry. All it takes is one time watching a $100 Million launcher destroying a $1Billion payload to realize this.

Launchers are hideously expensive and only 90% reliable despite the best of efforts of armies of engineers and technicians. Herculean efforts have gotten the shuttle and Saturn up to 98%, and that has required the expenditure of approximately $1Billion per launch (2000FY). All existing launchers are discarded after use and result in costs of over $10,000 per pound for orbit. The expendable launch vehicle (ELV) paradigm has lead to some very limiting circumstances. As each vehicle is unproven and oftentimes unique, they are allowed only to fly from test ranges with command destruct packages ready to destroy your expensive payload with a moments notice. Use of test ranges mean there are only a handful of facilities worldwide able to support space launch. This facilities limit leads to price inflation because of reduced competition and serves as a limit to growth in the space industry.

Expendable launchers also tend towards low rate production. Expensive vehicles will be optimized to each customer leading to production delays and increased costs. Highly fragile and optimized launchers also tend to have difficult integration processes (John R London: LEO on the Cheap, page 159). If each launcher is unique, each payload installation will also be unique, limiting learning curve effects for pad technicians. This state of affairs leads to the expenditure of hundreds of thousands of man-hours, as each mission is prepared. Most of this knowledge and labor is then wasted as each payload is launched as no two missions are the same and thousands of pounds of hardware is thrown away.

The ELV community has rarely exceeded launch rates of once per month and has had great difficulty in getting costs below $10,000 per pound, over the last 20 years. This problem appears fundamental to the idea of the ELV.

The Case for Suborbital

What is missed by most rocket designers is that suborbital is not a hard problem. Suborbital Launch Vehicles face energy requirements that the aviation community has been dealing with for 40 years. The chart above shows that the amount of energy you need to pack into a suborbital vehicle then remove is similar in character and magnitude to what a 747 or Fighter jet deals with daily. A suborbital RLV is a cousin to an airplane not an orbital vehicle. When we say a suborbital vehicle will have aircraft like operations we are not fooling around.

Suborbital spacecraft have been operating for far longer then orbital vehicles and reusable suborbital spacecraft have been highly successful. The NF-104 operated hundreds of times and the X-15 flew 199 missions with a 99% success rate. These "Research" aircraft were demonstrating costs and reliability figures better then the "operational" launch vehicles that were built at the same time.

The Space community has also ignored the fact that a robust science and engineering market has existed for suborbital missions since 1947. Starting with captured V-2 missiles, the physics and atmospheric research community has been spending on the order of 100 million per year on suborbital missions. The materials and Micro-G community has viewed suborbital ELV's as a low cost quick method to acquire data versus slower more expensive orbital platforms. ( The military and commercial industry has also viewed suborbital as a way to test new products and devices without a committed orbital platform. Use of a suborbital vehicle offers the fastest, cheapest way to mature technologies and move them from the lab to flight hardware. Scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech estimate an operational Suborbital Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV) could move devices from a Technology Readiness Level (TRL) 2or 3 as high as a 6 or 7 with a few test flights and for costs of 10% that of conventional testing.

The orbital RLV community has long stated that multiple new markets will grow once a reliable orbital RLV begins operations. There is no reason that the same phenomenon will not occur in suborbital and many reasons to believe suborbital will prove more of these markets then orbital will.

Suborbital launch services can be provided at 64 times less risk then orbital and at 10% the cost of Orbital systems. This proffers a 640 times improved risk-reward ratio to Orbital RLV's.

Walk before you run

Anyone who has raised children knows that a baby isn't born able to sprint but that years of experience and effort going from a toddler to an Olympic sprinter. The space industry is widely acknowledged to be an infant industry yet dozens of start-up firms have concentrated on "Sprinting" problems instead of toddling opportunities. Suborbital companies have 640 times more margin to solve issues in range safety, insurance, hardware maturity, political acceptance and market growth.

Range safety regulations are a fundamental issue in all space launch markets today. As long as launchers are perceived as ammunition not aircraft, there will be an insistence on ground based command destruct capacity with concomitant emphasis on detailed planning assured communications ground based tracking systems. Operations suborbital RLV's will demonstrate their independence from these systems and ultimately from the ranges.

The insurance community for space is extremely small and fragile compared to the large and robust insurance markets for marine, aviation and casualty. Insuring new types of ships or aircraft is significantly easier then insuring LV's of all types. While LV insurance is available the coverage pool is shallow relatively speaking and the competitiveness lower. New LV's should minimizing their total risk exposure by reducing development costs, having robust test demonstration programs and use of vertical flight profiles. While the first 2 ideas are self evident, the latter proposition is less so. Vertical flight never increases the risk population beyond the initial launch site. Due to gravity, any anomalies will always result in a return to base scenario unlike horizontal flight which will inevitably leave the test site.

All industries live within a political environment as much as an economic environment and public policy is a reality to all investors. Large visible projects attract attention both positive and negative. An adverse outcome of a large project may result in apolitical backlash, while equivalent difficulties in small projects will not inflame public opinion. $400M-$5B projects producing vehicles weighing 200-2,000 tons will operate under a spotlight. Suborbital vehicles weighing 5-30 tons will be almost invisible without an active PR campaign. Small systems can accept hiccups while building gradual public acceptance. The public dislikes change and change should be introduced slowly and from the smallest possible instance. As an industry matures, it also coalesce its natural economic supporters into political and trade associations that begin to serve as vociferous advocates in the corridors of public policy. This structure is best built gradually rather then overnight.

Computing was long known to be able to revolutionize American society, yet it took a 50-year process to develop to the multi trillion-dollar market we see today. Universal product codes (UPC's) took 10 years to introduce; yet they fully revolutionized retail. UPC's required a combination of cheap lasers, low cost computers and changes in business processes and consumer habits to be an effective solution. Computing held out this promise in the 1940's yet it took until the 1990's to build the market. If computing had required capital investment for that entire period, the industry would be moribund. Instead early markets in accounting (payroll) paid for the generation of technology that fill our modern era. Launch vehicles must find simple profitable mass markets to follow this example. It will be easier to find these new markets at lower price points of suborbital then in the more expensive orbital market.

Suborbital RLV's provide the best case for altering range safety, hardware knowledge, insurance bases, market opportunities compared to the far more difficult orbital LV. America was settled not with idea of Los Angeles but with the knowledge that a few trading posts could be supported and made profitable to the original investment companies. From these small bases, the great cities of New York, Baltimore, Chicago and New Orleans were built. It may be a cliché, but an oak tree, is just a nut that held it's ground.

Early Wins

The advantage of an early win is obvious to any financial analyst, but seems to constantly slip past the bulk of the launch industry. Early revenues provide for independence from investors and builds confidence that more revenues will follow. Small systems that can be profitable with 10% market capture will grow and expand, while systems dependent upon large market capture will be much riskier for profits. A ferry company can be profitable with only 5% of channel traffic, while Eurostar with 50% of the market barely covers operational costs.

During project development, small customers or investors hold disproportionate influence. Once operations begin and earnings appear, a firm will move to maximize profits. Prior to this strategic partners and investors may force sub-optimal decisions, such as use of partner services or products. All LV's to date have been captive to severe financial, political or supplier constraints, along with the tremendous challenge of making orbit.

Once a company becomes profitable, many of these constraints disappear allowing follow-on products to freely develop and exploit market opportunities. This opportunity seems to escape most LV designers who structure not only their products but their entire business solely to current conditions, leaving them ill-suited to market change. Is it any wonder that follow-on products even from the successful LV companies run 5-10 years between generations? Intel with its early revenue source changes products every 90 days profitably. RLV design must support fast revenue start and this is clearly possible in suborbital and significantly harder in orbital applications.


Suborbital RLV's offer not only 640 times better risk/reward ratio then orbital RLV's but sborbital RLV's are far more likely to be successful businesses then orbital applications. Suborbital RLV's will solve both the expendability problem and other structural barriers (Regulatory, insurance, Industrial base). Suborbital RLV's will pioneer new markets while providing cash flows that will attract additional investment to sustain development. Apple computer had no technical plan from the Apple 1 to the G4 Mac supercomputer but they had a business that provided this growth path. Sub-orbital before orbital is the profitable path to space.