CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida Commercial suborbital spaceflights should bring in between $600 million and $1.6 billion in revenue in their first decade of operations, according to a study commissioned by the U.S. and Florida governments and released on Wednesday.
Tourism drives about 80 percent of the demand for suborbital flights, which reach about 63 miles above the planet's surface before plunging back through the atmosphere.
The thrill ride gives fliers a few minutes to float in microgravity and a view of the Earth set against the blackness of space.
Virgin Galactic, an offshoot of Richard Branson's London-based Virgin Group, is one of six firms developing reusable suborbital spaceships, an analysis by The Tauri Group of Alexandria, Virginia, found.
Prices currently range from $200,000 for a ride on Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo, a six-passenger, two-pilot vehicle currently undergoing testing, to $95,000 for a flight on privately held XCOR Aerospace's planned two-seater Lynx vehicle.
Virgin Galactic, which is aiming to begin commercial service around 2014, already has $70 million in deposits from 536 people, Chief Executive George Whitesides said at a related congressional hearing on Wednesday.
The Tauri Group believes there are about another 7,500 wealthy people waiting in the wings.
"Our analysis indicates that about 8,000 high-net-worth individuals from across the globe are sufficiently interested and have spending patterns likely to result in the purchase of a suborbital flight - one-third from the United States," the report said.
"We estimate that about 40 percent of the interested, high-net-worth population, or 3,600 individuals, will fly within the 10-year forecast," it added.
The study, which included surveys of 200 people with a net worth of least $5 million, valued the fledgling industry at $600 million in its first decade, based on current market conditions and interest.
The market could be worth nearly three times that if marketing and consumer interest grows in the wake of successful flights, the study said.
"Further potential could be realized through price reductions and unpredictable achievements such as major research discoveries, the identification of new commercial applications, the emergence of global brand value, and new government (especially military) uses for suborbital reusable vehicles," the study said.
After tourists, the next biggest group of potential users are in the research community. Other potential markets include technology flight demonstrations, media and public relations, education, satellite launching, remote sensing and suborbital travel from one destination to another, a technology that is likely beyond the study's 10-year time frame.
The $277,000 study, titled "Suborbital Reusable Vehicles: A Ten-Year Forecast of Market Demand," was paid for by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, which oversees commercial spaceflight, and the state of Florida, which is home to NASA's Kennedy Space Center.
(Editing by Jane Sutton and Cynthia Osterman)