Saturday, February 13, 2010

Suborbital Cargo Agent

With the Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference (NSRC) next week in Boulder, CO, I wanted to share an idea for a “near-term”, “low-cost”, suborbital business venture.  The graph below shows price points for suborbital research payloads.  To achieve these price points while still offering a healthy profit for the business owner, demand needs to grow.  Here is a business concept that may both make money and grow demand. Let me explain...

The Problem: Suborbital companies are not prepared for customers – they don’t know retail. This is not an oversight on the part of these young companies. Launch operators have spent the last five years designing, building, and testing launch vehicles, why would they needed retail experience?  But with paying customers around the corner...this problem has to be solved.
  • Suborbital firms launching people are solving this problem by hiring travel agencies to interface with customers and coordinate sales activities.
  • Suborbital firms launching cargo have yet to solve this problem. Using existing travel agents will probably not be effective as the cargo customer base is focused on scientific research instead of human entertainment. Developing the sales/customer service talent in house is a possible solution, and although not fully avoidable, would be expensive and distracting from the firms' focus of flying rockets.
The Solution: Firms launching cargo need their own class of travel agent, their own outsourceable sales force – a Suborbital Cargo Agent (SCA). This agent would:
  • Interface with the customers, 
  • Integrate experiments into flight racks, and
  • Deliver integrated flight racks to launch operators for flight. 
  • After flight, the SCA would deliver payloads and data back to each customer.
Benefits to Customers:
  • One customer-focused interface to address all questions and coordinate payload, launch logistics, flight payment, etc.
  • More flight opportunities – by the SCA signing agreements with multiple launch operators, a crash, delay, or full manifest from one launch operator, would not delay flights as cargo could be switched to alternate providers as needed
  • Perhaps lower cost if the SCA could leverage her buying power when purchasing flights from the launch operator.  These savings could be passed on to the customer.
Benefits to Launch Providers:
  • Allow launch operators to focus on their core competency – launch operations. Outsourcing Sales and Customer service responsibilities and the associated costs both in time and money. Even if the operator chooses to develop a sales force of their own, an SCA would still allow an operator to increase demand at a lower cost.
  • Increase flight rates. Since the variable cost for a suborbital flight is low, the key to success for an operator will be high flight rates.
I was intrigued as I considered the possibilities for a venture that addresses this need. My next step was to do a little primary research. I talked to three groups: University professors from Cal Poly, MIT, and St. Louis University currently active in either university satellite development or active in space research of some kind, Contacts at NASA’s Commercial Reuseable Suborbital Research (CRuSR) program, and contacts at the Suborbital Applications Research Group (SARG) . Here is a brief summary of their comments about research payloads:
  • Low Cost: current CubeSat-sized payloads cost a university $50-100K to orbit. This is too much for most college programs which is why you see many universities unable to sustain a program of launching even cubesat-sized payloads. Although a market will continue for orbital payloads, universities would welcome a cheaper alternative that would bring the cost down while offering many of the same benefits to a university Aerospace engineering department. A preferred price point would be under $20K since that would allow many universities to include the launch price in Govt grants and research applications.
  • Frequent Launch Opportunities: according to one professor, his current wait time to launch a cubesat-sized payload 7 years. The students who developed that payload will have graduated many years before this payload ever flies.
  • Inter-departmental Cooperation: To date, most university work on satellite and related Aerospace projects have originated from the Aerospace engineering department (or Physics department if a university lacks an Aerospace engineering department). For universities to gain maximum value from suborbital research programs, they would need to develop cross-disciplinary teams. Aerospace Engineering, Physics, and other disciplines (Biology, Medicine, etc.) would need to work together for the benefit of all departments. The professors admit this level of ongoing collaboration is not regularly seen between university departments and may be a challenge to maintain.
  • Payload standardization in the form of CubeSats have been a great benefit to university engineering programs. The university participants would benefit from a similar standard for suborbital research.
  • Multiple Sizes: The CubeSat size is too small for some larger experiments.  Multiple sizes would be welcome.
  • Two forms of experimentation: Manned and Unmanned. Some research programs can be conducted remotely. This is great news for universities wanting the value of such a hands-on program at low cost since automated experiments avoid the weight and volume human tended experiments take up. But manned experiments will play a leading role as well for those focused on life sciences research or whose larger experiments cannot currently be automated. The professors I spoke with saw both types of experiments flourishing on suborbital vehicles.
  • Advocates. The industry is new (heck, we are not even flying to 100km yet), but SARG’s Dr. Alan Stern estimates an “imminent” market of 1000 missions per year. Whether such a large market estimate is hyperbole for the sake of the sound-bite or an actual belief is up for debate. But such a claim is an interesting nugget of how bullish some are about suborbital opportunities.
  • Suborbital experiments are a gateway to orbital experiments. Researchers may test their hardware and gain experience in suborbit and graduate to orbital efforts when the time is right.  Offering such a tier of services (suborbital and orbital) should grow both markets.
I have also been in contact with Jeffrey Manber and NanoRacks after I read of their plan to build a business transporting cubesat-sized standard experiments to the ISS. NanoRacks has developed a standard rack that plugs into an MDL on station. NanoRacks worked with Bob Twiggs (co-creater of the CubeSat) from Kentucky Aerospace to build a standard experiment module called the CubeLab. Still 10cm-cubed, and plugs into their rack via a standard USB port. Very plug-and play! I like this. NanoRacks and Kentucky Space intend to offer this CubeLab technology as open-source for the benefit of the industry. One important nugget: the CubeSat has already passed significant ITAR hurdles, and since the CubeLab is based on similar technology to the CubeSat, a business using this open-source technology should have a significantly easier time attracting and working with international customers.  NanoRacks goal is to offer Micro-gravity research opportunitis on the ISS, but I think the technology ports very well into the suborbital arena as well.

So with this background research, let’s build a business case ( or at least the fun spreadsheet stuff). Here is what I have in mind for such a venture:
  • Focus exclusively on the automated cargo market. 
  • Fly only CubeLabs.
  • Work with Kentucky Space to develop a series of standard CubeLab sizes:
    • CubeLab1: current 10x10x10cm bus (16 per rack)
    • CubeLab4: 20x20x20cm bus (4 per rack)
    • CubeLab8: 20x20x40cm bus (2 per rack)
    • All compatible with the current NanoRack rack design
  • Negotiate low costs per flights and preferred provider status from the available suborbital launch operators
  • Consider partnering with Kentucky Space for integration services.
Provide the following services to customers:
  • Educate: Suborbital Research Evangelist - how suborbital research can benefit you, the customer
  • Book Flights
  • Ongoing rebooking as schedules of experiments and launch vehicles slip
  • Payload integration coordination
  • Integrated Rack delivery to launch provider (two to sixteen experiments integrated into one "ready-to-launch rack" making it easy for launch operators to load the rack onboard their rockets)
  • Payload return to customer
  • Launch data download from rack to secure Internet site for customer
So now the numbers. I have prepared two extreme pro formas: one optimistic view of launch prices and market demand and one more pessimistic view. And let me admit this right now, I have NOT done my due diligence on these figures. Instead these are meant to establish the trade space and start the discussion. Feel free to download these spreadsheets adjusting the inputs as desired.



Price Point Backup Data (from the graph at the start of this post):


  1. Colin,

    Really good stuff. I've been following this industry for almost 10 years (pretty much since Dennis Tito started it all, imo) and have not seen too many clear, practical, realistic (but ambitious) analyses pertaining to microgravity business opportunities. Yours here is on the money, my friend.

    I've had several similar type conversations with some of the founders of 'NewSpace' companies (e.g. in Mojave) and you are absolutely right -- they are busy with the physics, the welding, the engineering but either don't know how or couldn't really care less about the 'retail' side as you put it. I think this is the result of being the 'children' -- ideologically-speaking -- of NASA. Which, as we know, has made tremendous technological strides without the burden of serious capital constraints. They would complain that their budget was reduced but when you start out in the 9-figure range, not exactly such a bad budget to begin with.

    Contrast that with the aforementioned grassroots start-ups out in Mojave, New Mexico, or Texas and well...they're really having to wait for that next Ikea sale for office furniture if you catch my drift...

    What will enable a Silicon Valley of NewSpace to really happen -- will be an embracing of your analysis above. Space tourism will make the headlines -- when Brangelina kiss in zero-g on SpaceShipTwo -- that will be some big headlines. And this is a good thing -- a very good thing -- for the NewSpace industry.

    But for the industry to really flourish, to become something large and viable and important, I believe, as you so articulately explain above, will be this microgravity research.

    Btw, I was actually slated to go to Boulder for the Next-Gen event but work has prevented that (and I'm not happy about it!)

    I noticed that your analysis focused on research with universities (a logical place to begin). However, I have been doing some informal, empirical research by talking with a few folks in private companies (e.g. pharmaceutical, biotech, etc.) to find out what kind of cost/kg would start appealing to them.

    Naturally, the same issues arise with those folks as with the universities: reliability, frequency of use, and, of course, cost.

    If you'd care to discuss this further, please let me know. I am very impressed by your analysis above.


  2. RD:

    I agree that pharma could be a huge market. probably willing to pay more per flight and wanting more flights (the biggest differentiator!)

    Frankly, the reason i have not focused on them more, is my lack of contacts within the industry. sure, love to talk to you further. anything appropriate for the whole community, i would love to see posted here for all to benefit (i am focused on open source as much as is possible). email me for anything else: cdoughan (at) gmail dot com

  3. From Next Gen Suborbital conference this week in Colorado:

    Thought you might find it interesting that both XCOR rep and Space-X rep said that suborbital microgravity researchers and the commercial space companies that will enable them to get into micro-g will need "brokers, integrators, marketers to manage payloads" (Max Vozoff of Space-X); "major opportunity for groups to step up as payload integrators" (Khaki McKee of XCOR).

  4. RD:

    Thanks for that. I also agree with Rocketplane's Chuck Lauer when he talks about standards. if not the mideck locker by itself, then standards that can integrate with the MDL will be key.

    "middeck lockers are the chariot wheels of the 21st C. Will be using that standard for decades to come"


  5. It's interesting that you say "I think the [CubeLab/CubeSat] technology ports very well into the suborbital arena as well." Kentucky Space is also doing a sub-orbital CubeSat demonstration mission called SOCEM in March:

  6. Anthony:

    In fact, I think Kentucky Space and Bob Twiggs could be one of the key players by establishing and expanding a set of experimental standards. first start with the experiment buses that I mention in my post, but then expand to include a standard set of mix and match components: a standard micro-camera compatible with any of the buses for experiment observation during flight. and then add other plug-N-play components (power supplies, communication gear, atmospheric sampling components, etc.). Think of it this way: first I bought my I-Pod. Now I can buy a leather case, speakers, a car charger...there may be a business model for selling these additional components. now that would be a fun spreadsheet analysis to perform! :)