18 February 2011
The return of Concorde - as a spaceship?
Brian Micklethwait

On Wednesday of this week, both Michael Jennings and I attended a talk given by James C Bennett at the IEA, organised by the Economic Policy Centre, about private sector space development.  I was curious about where the money is either now being made in space, or is about to be made, and asked about that.  Military espionage, communications satellites, tourism, and (eventually - but how soon?) mining the solar system for physical stuff, right?

Nearly.  It will be some time before off-earth mining gets seriously going.  But the big immediate omission from that list turned out to be: transport!


Basically, low earth orbit is an economically rational way to do what Concorde did but failed to do rationally.  Getting money-no-object business execs, and high value cargo like urgent legal documents, from A to B in two hours rather than six or ten, basically.  I had assumed that the only people who would soon be “going into space” would be doing this purely for the fun of it.  Not so.  No need to land where you took off from.  Why not go somewhere?

Very fast.


  1. Presumably this is what Virgin Galactic will progress to doing fairly quickly.

    Posted by Rob Fisher on  18 February 2011 at 07:23 pm

  2. More than six to ten. 22 hours to go London-Sydney, and lots of 15 hour flights between Asia-Americas and Europe-Asia. Get those down to 2.

    Well, we will see if it is an economically rational way of doing it. Jim didn’t seem to think this was going to capture the mass market, just a certain portion of the high end market. The question is what the price is, and how price sensitive people actually are. The portion of business execs who genuinely are money-no-object is actually pretty small. Tickets in the five to ten thousand dollar range - well there are plenty of people who will pay that.

    I’m not convinced about legal documents though. Remember how 15 years ago there were lots of bike couriers in cities? They are mostly now gone. They were carrying travel documents (air tickets and hotel vouchers) and legal documents. The travel documents are now done on the internet, and the legal documents are now faxed or e-mailed. (Often a signed and faxed document is legally valid whereas an e-mailed one isn’t. The legal profession seems to be one or two generations behind the technology).

    Provide the service and there will be a market to transport something, but I doubt that is it. (The other application that was mentioned the other night was human organs for transplants, but I think it is only likely to ever be a niche application).

    Posted by Michael Jennings on  18 February 2011 at 08:33 pm

  3. What is the projected payload fraction for, say, London - Los Angeles?

    Posted by Crosbie on  18 February 2011 at 10:35 pm

  4. The idea of having your travel time reduced by such a large amount is an attractive offer and will appeal to a lot of the high end market, but at the same time what percentage of travelers will actually be able to use this service often rather than once a year or strictly for time based emergencies?

    Posted by Transporter on  23 March 2011 at 09:26 pm

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