Space Tourism Musings

My post on Wednesday about Passengers as an RLV market got me thinking about the old Futron Space Tourism study from 20021.

Background on the Futron 2002 Space Tourism Market Study
If you’re relatively new to the space scene, this was a market study the Futron corporation did right around the time the first Space Tourists started flying to the ISS (Mark Shuttleworth and Dennis Tito). In this study they met with several hundred affluent people and asked them a series of questions about their interest in flying to space (suborbital and orbital), both before and after they had talked about the postive features and downsides/risks of space tourism. They asked questions to try and gauge how sensitive people’s interest was to the price point of the  service. They asked questions about things that might increase or decrease people’s willingness to buy a ticket (things like flying on a Russian rocket on the negative side and having a short 1 month training cycle on the plus side).

They also asked sanity checking questions about how much people spent on vacations and large discretionary purchases. They used this last bit of information to try and estimate what fraction of a person’s wealth they really would be likely to spend on a single purchase (they found that very few of the affluent people surveyed spent more than 1.5% of their wealth on any given discretionary purchase2). They used this 1.5% number as a conservative upper bound on the percentage of their wealth someone would spend on a space tourism flight3. They would use that to estimate the minimum amount of wealth someone would need to actually be willing to pay for a flight. They’d take the number of people with that wealth level or higher as the base pool of potential customers. They’d then reduce it based on several other factors (fitness, willingness of survey members to buy at that given price, etc) to whittle it down to likely customers. They then used that with an adoption curve to try and estimate the adoption rate for orbital and suborbital tourism. In both cases, they made assumptions about the price of the service over time, and did a single projection of the market.

Gary Hudson’s t/Space later reanalyzed the data4 to see what the effect of different price levels would be on demand. They used both the 1.5% of wealth and 5% of wealth limits to see the size of market at ticket price points of $5M, 2.5M, and 1M, with the assumption that the launch took place in the US and the training took only one month (instead of six months in Russia5). Gary found that the addressable market and flight revenues were likely to increase substantially as prices dropped to these levels6.

Update Based on 2013 High Net-Worth Individual Data
Out of curiosity, I decided to look-up the latest estimates of numbers of High Net-Worth Individuals (HNWIs) by various wealth tiers, to recrunch the numbers. I had to get data from two wealth surveys, one the 2013 World Wealth Report from Capgemini that only had three tiers ($1-5M, $5-30M, and $30M+)7, and another World Ultra Wealth Report 2013 from WealthX and UBS, which broke down Ultra High Net-Worth Individuals (UHNWIs) into several tiers between $30M and $1B8. One important discrepancy you’ll notice is that the first report only showed ~110k UHNWIs and the latter showed nearly twice that, ~200k UHNWIs, both for the same time frame, so you should expect the transition between the two to be a bit rough. Also, the World Ultra Wealth Report didn’t break billionaires into any subtiers, which had the odd effect of placing more people in the $1B+ tier than in the $750-999M tier. Also in each case, the tier divisions seemed somewhat arbitrary. I’d love to get a single set of raw data from one source that all individuals with >$1M in assets, but alas.

Anyhow, let’s get to some tables and charts.

First up is the table with the numbers from both of the reports put into one convenient location…

HNWI-dataNext, is chart that uses the data from that table and shows the average wealth level of each individual tier on the X axis, and the number of individuals on the Y axis, with both axes on a logarithmic scale 9.

HNWI-chartThe two major blips you see in the curve are at the third data point where we transition from one report to the other, and in the final data point where all billionaires are lumped into one single group. But the data actually lines up reasonably well with a power-law curve fit.

One third chart uses the same data, but this time shows for each given tier level the number of individuals with at least that level of net worth10.

CumulativeHNWICountWhile this looks like a great fit, and while it’s within <10% error at half the data points, the worst errors are at the >$5M level (+33%), the >$200M (-27%), and the >$1B level (+34%). That’s far from perfect, but is a far better fit than any other the other trendline options in Excel, and using that trendline equation we can estimate the global demand pool at various ticket prices and percentages of their wealth people would willing to spend.

One last chart is to extrapolate the percentage of HNWIs willing to buy at a given ticket price. This is probably the shakiest extrapolation, but is necessary to cover the full range of interest. I didn’t plot this log-log this time, and as you can see the trendline isn’t perfect, so data below $1M and above $25M needs to be taken with an appropriate sized grain of NaCl.

Estimated Addressable Orbital Tourism Market Size Analysis
So, now that I have those curve fits and that data, I can rerun the analysis Gary Hudson’s group ran using up-to-date data, and a more granular distribution of ticket prices, up to and including today’s current ~$50M ticket price level for Soyuz seats11. I also used three values for the maximum fraction of someone’s net worth they’d spend on a ticket–the Futron value of 1.5%, the 5% number t/Space included, and a 10% number that’s more indicative of what several actual space tourists have been willing to shell out12.  I used the same multipliers t/Space did for fitness probability, and for flying out of the US with ~1 month training in the US instead of 6 months in Russia.

Here’s the results for the case where customers are willing to spend 10% of their net worth on space travel:

NumCust_10NW MarketSize_10NW

Here’s similar charts based on a max ticket price of 5% of a given HNWI’s net worth:NumCust_5NW MarketSize_5NW

And again with ticket prices at the 1.5% of HNWI’s net worth used by the Futron study:

NumCust_1_5NW MarketSize_1_5NW

And in case you want to poke around my spreadsheet, here’s a copy: SpaceTourismCalcs.xlsx.

Takeaways and Caveats
Here’s the main takeaways I had from this exercise:

  • Space Tourism demand looks like it’s likely one of the few existing space markets with a high degree of elasticity. Reducing ticket prices should increase the addressable market enough to actually lead to more addressable revenue–so there should be a strong incentive to drive down costs and thus prices.
    • I was actually surprised by this–I figured that at the prices we were talking about, the demand elasticity would actually be very low, and that you’d have to get prices down quite a bit to get into “virtuous spiral territory”.
  • The elasticity at all three levels of “max percentage of net worth per ticket” is strong, with a 7-8x revenue increase dropping from the targeted Commercial Crew ticket prices of $20M/seat to the $1M/seat level.
  • You wouldn’t even need to get down to the $1M/seat range to get demand levels high enough to support a healthy industry of small RLVs.
  • If you assume 60hr research weeks for 2 weeks at a stay, a researcher could beat the already lowballed NASA ISS estimate of $55k/hr13 costs even if seat prices were $5M/seat. This is a totally different and complementary market to tourism, but I thought I’d throw that number in there.
  • Even though almost all space tourists so far have spent >5-10% of their net worth on their flight to ISS, even if future tourists would only be willing to spend 1.5% of their net worth, these elasticity results look real, and the addressable market sizes look interesting.

Before we wrap up, here are some important caveats:

  • There were discrepancies between the two wealth datasets, and the trendlines I used probably smoothed out a lot of real-world bumpiness.
  • The Futron “likelyhood to buy at a given price point” data I used here was only for orbital flight–for other destinations like suborbital or lunar you’d need different probabilities.
  • I wasn’t doing this post to suggest I think that space tourism is the only interesting market, the best market, or even a good market. I just wanted to run the numbers using newer data to see what could be learned. It suggests to me that people-related markets (tourism, potentially research, etc) likely are going to be very elastic compared to say satellite launch.
  • This is based on a survey over a decade old. A lot has happened since then for better or for worse. For instance, space tourism has progressed a lot slower than originally expected. On the orbital side, part of this is due to the spotty availability of Soyuz seats–the Russians have filled just about every space tourist seat they’ve offered, even while jacking the price up by 2x what Futron had analyzed. On the suborbital side, it has taken everyone a lot longer to execute (and in XCOR’s case raise the money to have a shot at executing) than expected. There was also the fatal SS2 test accident last year. All of those could shift people’s opinions around. As could the number of wealthy people seriously talking about space tourism, Mars emmigration, etc.
  • I wouldn’t put any weight in these numbers on a quantitative basis–there are probably useful qualitative lessons to be learned, but I don’t want to see anyone using this data as though it has even one significant figure…
  • Also, the market sizes I showed were total addressable market sizes (ie the total number of people who could afford it, are healthy enough, and are likely to buy if the flight happens in the US with ~1 month training), not yearly market sizes.
  • I think I mentioned this 2-3 times already, but someone should really pay a Futron type entity to redo this study in another year or two or three, maybe once suborbital tourism flights have started up.
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Jonathan Goff

Jonathan Goff

President/CEO at Altius Space Machines
Jonathan Goff is a space technologist, inventor, and serial space entrepreneur who created the Selenian Boondocks blog. Jon was a co-founder of Masten Space Systems, and is the founder and CEO of Altius Space Machines, a space robotics startup in Broomfield, CO. His family includes his wife, Tiffany, and five boys: Jarom (deceased), Jonathan, James, Peter, and Andrew. Jon has a BS in Manufacturing Engineering (1999) and an MS in Mechanical Engineering (2007) from Brigham Young University, and served an LDS proselytizing mission in Olongapo, Philippines from 2000-2002.
  1. Yes, someone really should pay Futron or someone similar do an updated version of this study to see what if anything has changed over the past 13 years.
  2. <10% of the surveyed individuals spent >5% of their net worth on a single discretionary purchase
  3. Based on estimates of their net worth at the time, Shuttleworth and Tito likely spent between 7-10% of their net worth on their flights, so this 1.5% is probably on the conservative side
  4. Go to the link to the t/Space paper, and you’ll find this analysis starting on page 44
  5. Something about having to take half a year off to train in a foreign, somewhat unstable country tends to put a damper on enthusiasm for space tourism from high net-worth individuals
  6. Futron also indicated a strong increase in likely revenues at these lower prices
  7. See page 7 of the linked report
  8. Supposedly documented on page 17, but you have to register to download the report
  9. As you can see, this distribution follows Akin’s Law #8, Mar’s Law, which states that: “Everything is linear if plotted log-log with a fat magic marker.”
  10. Ok, I’m starting to think Professor Akin and this Mar guy were a little too uncannily prescient…
  11. On the rare occasion that they’re actually available
  12. I know, I know data isn’t the plural of anecdote, but…
  13. I heard this number recently from CASIS, and think it’s based on just the raw cost of flying the researcher to ISS. If you amortized the full cost of the ISS over the 2000 hours of research they get per year, $2M/hr would be a better estimate
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3 Responses to Space Tourism Musings

  1. ken anthony says:

    A starvation for this type of data suggests it may be used more than you intended. The only safe take away being there is some non zero market and it is likely quite elastic. Good enough for this space cadet, although I think the benefits of colonization will be perceived as a better proposition for more…

    A new life on a frontier with no government dictating limits to what you can do and because of the inherent mass surcharge of personal property every colonist begins with millions of dollars in personal wealth and the ability to claim even more by possession.

    Infrastructure development should rise quickly as more people arrive making life not that much different from people living in a high-rise apartment in any city. It is actually the high cost of getting there that makes this social structure possible.

    This is basic economics. If it costs $/kg to get anything from earth, any personal item you bring from earth that you can not make on mars will hold close to that value. Initially those items will be purchased by wealth other colonists bring with them, but as the local economy takes hold more trade will occur from local resources. Colonists only have to select personal property likely to retain value over time. A futures market could add additional liquidity.

    All we have to do is send free traders and not communist puppets. Ownership is the key to the solar system.

  2. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    Yeah, the point that evidence suggests the market is highly elastic is probably the key takeaway.


  3. Dave Salt says:

    Great post, Jon.

    One small question: you say “…almost all space tourists so far have spent >5-10% of their net worth on their flight to ISS…” but I wonder if that’s true because many seem to have cut deals with ‘sponsors’ and so some may have even made a profit on their trip.

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