The enduring fantasy of space hotels
by A.J. Mackenzie
|“We want to have Sting come up and play, and Beyoncé,” one of the company’s executives told the Post. “There’ll be two shows every night… That’s part of the entertainment package.”|
It helped that the company has a lot of beautiful illustrations of what they call the Voyager Space Station. (The concept was originally named after Wernher von Braun but the company says it renamed it “to embody the spirit of what this station will mean to all those who travel there.” In other words, they decided it was unwise to name the station after a Nazi.) There are views of the exterior of the station with its ring of dozens of habitation modules interspersed with Dream Chaser vehicles that apparently serve as lifeboats. Inside, some modules host restaurants, and another a gym where you can finally dunk a basketball, thanks to the one-sixth g created by its rotation. Others show staterooms that look like something on a luxury cruise ship, other than the view of the Earth out the window.
One of the most extraordinary things about those images is that they looked so… ordinary. Take away the window, and that restaurant looks like one a typical hotel or resort. Same for the staterooms, with people wearing street clothes rather than flight suits. Even the entertainment is down to earth: “We want to have Sting come up and play, and Beyoncé,” one of the company’s executives told the Post. “There’ll be two shows every night… That’s part of the entertainment package.”
The idea that, in six years, a space station far larger than the ISS will be in orbit, catering to space tourists with fine cuisine and entertainers who normally would take up residency on the Vegas Strip, is ludicrous. Let’s assume that, for the sake of argument, Orbital Assembly Corp. is serious and sincere when they talk about building a space hotel by 2027. They have some experienced people on board, like a former JPL engineer, and may have some interesting technology. That doesn’t make their plans any more believable.
First is the schedule. The belief that any company or organization can build the world’s largest space station, able to host hundreds of people, in just six years boggles the mind. Outside of NASA, perhaps the only entity with the resources to be able to do something like this today is China. But its plans for a space station are much more modest—a station smaller than the ISS—and is also years behind schedule. Far smaller space projects have run into delays and cost overruns, as noted here recently (see “Waiting is the hardest part”, The Space Review, March 1, 2021), and there’s no reason to believe this would be any exception.
|But $1 million is not even a down payment on tens of billions of dollars, and there’s no clear way how they’re going to raise that capital.|
Second is the cost. Few, if any, of the news reports about Voyager Space Station mention how much it would cost to build it: a curious lack of curiosity. The company has also said little about it. During a webinar back in January organized by the company, it wasn’t until near the end, after questions about technical details like its attitude control system, did someone ask for the cost. After some hemming and hawing about launch costs and such, they finally acknowledged they are “looking at the tens of billions of dollars” to build it.
That webinar was a sales pitch for a crowdfunding investment round, taking advantage of a Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) rule that allows companies to raise limited funding from small investors rather than the traditional, wealthier accredited investors. That appears to be a success, since the website for the company says they’ve raised their target of $1 million; a big deal for a company that, according to their SEC filing, had just $497 in assets at the end of its last fiscal year. (Not $497 million, or $497,000, but three bucks shy of $500.) But $1 million is not even a down payment on tens of billions of dollars, and there’s no clear way how they’re going to raise that capital. (It’s also a little odd that, at a time when it’s never been easier for space companies to raise huge amounts of funding, they turned to crowdfunding; maybe their plan is a little too risky even for venture capitalists.)
Third is their vision for spaceflight. According to the company, by 2027 you’ll be able to travel to their space station in much the same way you’d go to a terrestrial resort or on a cruise. Hop on a Starship and come to Voyager! No special training, no special equipment needed. Just check the dress code so you’re not turned away at the fancy restaurant, or the evening concert with Sting.
The last couple of decades, though, has shown how difficult human orbital spaceflight has been. SpaceX really struggled to develop Crew Dragon to the point where pressure-suited NASA astronauts could safely fly to the ISS in it, and Boeing has struggled even more on Starliner. Crew Dragon will soon start carrying private astronauts, but they’re going to require months of training for the flights, and the experience is going to be more like a polar or mountain-climbing expedition than a stay at the Hilton Hawaiian Village. It’s been a while since I’ve traveled, but I can’t remember any stay at a hotel requiring more training than the clerk at the check-in desk telling me where the elevators, restaurant, and bar are located, or how to log onto the wifi.
But Orbital Assembly Corp. is just the latest in a long line of ventures promising space hotels but failing to deliver. A few years ago, Orion Span proposed a space hotel—just a few modules, not a spectacular ring—launching in 2021 or 2022. The company hasn’t raised any money, though, and has been quiet for many months now. More than a decade ago, Galactic Suite pitched the idea of a modular space hotel (complete with training on a tropical island!) but also hasn’t gone anywhere. According to Orbital Assembly’s website, a Russian company called Orbital Technologies “expects to welcome its first guests well before 2020” at a space hotel. It’s past 2020 and… well? How’s that going?
There are even older ideas for space hotels, including concepts that would reuse space shuttle external tanks. But the only company that has flown hardware that could be linked to a space hotel is Bigelow Aerospace, which launched two Genesis inflatable modules more than a decade ago and then built the BEAM module currently on the ISS (and apparently used as a storage closet these days.) Bigelow never liked being called a space hotel company, though, and talked more about research and “sovereign client” astronauts from other space agencies. It’s a moot point, since Bigelow suspended operations a year ago and hasn’t shown any signs of restarting.
|There’s never been a better time to be involved in space, and none of it has to do with 1970s-era visions of space colonies and powersats.|
Axiom Space might be serious contender for a future space hotel, but they seem to be taking a more incremental approach than Orbital Assembly and others: attaching modules to the ISS that could later be separated into a standalone space station for use in tourism but also research and other applications. They’ve also recently raised $130 million from some major investors, and have a leadership team filled with former NASA officials and astronauts. They aren’t, however, promising a rotating space station by 2027 with luxury accommodations and A-list performers.
Space hotels have been part of the vision sold by space advocates for decades, along with space solar power, space elevators, and the like. (You probably won’t be surprised to find that space-based solar power made a cameo in the Orbital Assembly investor presentation; if you’re going to dream, dream big.) Those were all essential ingredients, they claimed, to a vibrant future in space. But what we’re seeing today is a blossoming of commercial space activity, from reusable rockets to megaconstellations and lunar landers. There’s never been a better time to be involved in space, and none of it has to do with 1970s-era visions of space colonies and powersats.
Maybe, after all those decades, the space community has broken free from those earlier visions, and is charting a new course for success in space. Space hotels like what Orbital Assembly is proposing aren’t necessary for that success, certainly not in the 2020s and probably not for decades more. Don’t let fantasy get in the way of reality.
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