As signs grow that there will be a strong market for commercial space tourism, entrepreneurs are beginning to tackle a host of important marketing issues, including determining how price sensitive the market will be and what it will take to make sure space tourists feel they are getting their money’s worth.

While people already are making down payments or deposits for tickets to fly on rockets that in some cases are more artwork than hardware, marketing research is vital if commercial space tourism experiences are to be designed on the basis of a sound understanding of consumer choice behavior, said Geoffrey Crouch, professor and chair of marketing in the School of Business at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia.

Crouch and his colleagues — Timothy Devinney of the Australian Graduate School of Management, and Jordan Louviere at the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia — are engaged in new space tourism market research, work they said is being done as rigorously and as scientifically as possible.

But there are limitations, Crouch said. “Particularly in this situation…you’re dealing with an entirely new industry. It has no sort of past history, no past customer behavior to look back on and project into the future.”

There are a host of variables that consumers of space travel will perceive differently, Crouch said. Among them : launch location, vehicle type, duration of the weightless experience and degree of training involved.

Crouch was among a number of specialists in space tourism who rallied at the 24th International Space Development Conference, which was held in Washington May 19-22 and sponsored by the National Space Society.

Many of them said getting the personal spaceflight industry off the ground — and keeping it there — will take marketing savvy and knowing the needs, expectations and fears of your space passengers .

Firms like Virgin Galactic, a space tourism venture backed by Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, have begun work shaping the early market by focusing on suborbital space travel with an eye toward eventually providing trips into low Earth orbit for paying passengers.

Crouch said the events of the past year have shown that commercial space tourism is technologically feasible. But commercial feasibility has yet to be demonstrated, he said, adding that viability rests on more than the existence of a few “willing and wealthy” customers.

“Obviously price is the one that people have been focusing on,” Crouch said. “The safety question is going to be a key factor in any person’s mind as to whether they would travel on any of these new commercial ventures.”

During his presentation at the conference, Crouch unveiled a preliminary set of findings from his research on the market for suborbital space travel. Among them:

– The opportunity to float in zero-g was significantly preferred compared to being strapped in a seat.

– Less extensive launch-vehicle training was significantly preferred.

– Highly educated individuals exhibited significantly less interest in suborbital space travel.

“The big problem with suborbital is from a customer-experience perspective,” Crouch said, with each flight giving the customer five or six minutes of weightlessness.

“It will be very interesting to see the customer reaction to such a short experience,” Crouch said . Nevertheless, there is enjoyment in preparing for the event. “And a suborbital space tourist will have great party stories to tell for many years to come…so the experience will certainly linger for a long time.”

Eric Anderson, president and chief executive officer of Space Adventures Ltd., based in Arlington, Va., said ” having a pyramid of experiences helps build the market all along the chain.”

Space Adventures helped arrange rides for private citizens to the international space station aboard Russian Soyuz TMA spacecraft launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

Those “cash and carry” flights involved clients Dennis Tito and Mark Shuttleworth, each shelling out a reported $20 million for their orbital adventure.

“Over the next 18 months, there will be three Soyuz flights. Probably two of those will have our passengers on them,” Anderson said.

The Space Adventures’ suborbital program, currently in development, will consist of a four-day training period and a 90-minute spaceflight. The company anticipates suborbital spaceflights to commence in the 2007-08 timeframe. The current price for the program is $102,000.

“I am very encouraged with the successful flights of SpaceShipOne last year and the progression of the legislation process in developing appropriate regulations for the industry, but there is much more to be done,” Anderson said .

In this regard, the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation should make obtaining a launch license for a qualified reusable launch vehicle “reasonable,” Anderson said.

“That sword cuts both ways,” Anderson added. “Not everyone should be able to get one. We don’t want people getting a launch license and killing passengers. But people should not have to spend a billion dollars to get a license either.”

Another issue, Anderson said, is the abundance of viewgraph visionaries with little money touting pet rocket designs. “We need to maintain the credibility of the industry,” he said. “If there’s too much hocus pocus, then it all kind of blows away in smoke.”

Rich Pournelle, director of business development at XCOR Aerospace of Mojave, Calif., said ” the question is going to be the long-term market and at what price.” XCOR is working a rocket-powered suborbital vehicle dubbed Xerus, among other projects.

Ultimately, a passenger’s ticket price for a suborbital flight will come down after several hundred people have flown, Pournelle said. “The biggest thing that’s going to move markets to this industry is people making money,” Pournelle concluded.