Friday 22 July 2011

Retro-future: "How To Make a Spacious Fortune"

The return of the last Space Shuttle has reminded me of an article I wrote in 2000 for the online magazine Jackhammer E-zine. Eleven years ago — pre-9/11 — the future looked a little different.
How To Make a Spacious Fortune

"Space is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is."
If space is as big as Douglas Adams says (in The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy), surely there's ample opportunity for making money from it. Unfortunately, big though it is, space consists mostly of one thing: nothing at all.

But perhaps this very lack of something is what the daring entrepreneur can capitalize on. Wouldn't people pay for the privilege of being among the very first to contemplate such vastness?
What we're talking about is one of the biggest money-spinners on Earth. Whole countries depend on it for their survival in today's competitive, commercial world. It's tourism.

What works here on Earth could also work in space: luxury hotels in orbit around the globe, giving their lucky guests the chance to sample the novelties of astronautic life. Who would pass up the chance to try out a zero-gravity toilet? Who would throw over the opportunity of experiencing that curious multi-dimensional disorientation that leads to space-sickness?

It's possible, of course, to simulate gravity in space. But a slowly rotating wheel, large enough for its centrifugal force to equal even a sixth of Earth's gravity -- like the one in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey -- is too big to be a realistic proposition just yet, despite next year being when it was predicted to be feasible.

Then there's the view: the Earth, spinning in isolation, vulnerable in the void, has been described by some astronauts in quasi-religious terms. "My view of our planet was a glimpse of divinity," wrote Edgar Mitchell of Apollo 14.

After being on vacation for some time, it's natural to have the odd tinge of fondness for the place one has so eagerly left. How much more profound to see it hovering below, in the knowledge that it's farther away from you than ever?

Having established that there's a likely market for space tourism, provided the price is right, it's time to look at the practicalities. Let's assume that the goal is an orbiting hotel, and some kind of regular transit service to ferry the guests to and from such a desirable venue.

The first problem is building the place, and for this it seems sensible to take a cue from that other ongoing orbital project, the International Space Station. The ISS is likely to cost American tax-payers $25 billion, not counting the contributions from the ISS partners in Russia, Japan, Europe, Canada and Brazil. The occupants of the initial few modules, enjoying reasonable life-support and accommodation for a crew of three, remain in orbit for about 90 days, but our tourists will probably want to stay a much shorter time.

Although building an orbital hotel will be a massive technological and financial undertaking, the knowledge gained from the ISS will point the way. The main reason that a hotel is not being assembled far above our heads today, is that to be viable a hotel must be easily accessible. A reliable and frequent transport system is needed. NASA's Space Shuttle is at present the only (partly) reusable transport available, but it has proved itself a flexible and adaptable vehicle.

Each Shuttle flight costs in the order of $300 million, so with a payload of perhaps six guests and one or two service personnel, the cost could be in the region of $50 million per guest at today's prices, for the transport alone. This is astronomic, even for the most exclusive accommodation on -- or off -- the globe.
The Shuttle's very versatility makes it non-cost-effective for the comparatively simple task of getting people into orbit and fetching them down again. A more specialized vehicle is obviously what's required, perhaps one with greater capacity. There are many vehicle designs on the drawing board, several of which could serve our purpose. (For sub-orbital flights only, there is even a self-build kit version, the SpaceCub -- a snip at half a million dollars, plus fuel.)

On arrival, what entertainment would be available for these exclusive guests? Naturally a fully equipped fitness room would be a priority. Even during short periods of microgravity, the human skeleton loses a significant amount of calcium -- a process called demineralization -- due to lack of muscle-stress on the bones, so a daily workout would be an essential part of each guest's routine.

There would also be periods of training. Life in space involves many hazards, and though the residents would receive instruction before traveling to orbit, there would be no substitute for learning to cope in the environment itself. This hotel would be far away from the usual facilities found in most large cities on Earth; the residents would need to know what to do in any eventuality. It's unlikely that the rear of the bedroom door would be large enough to contain all the emergency instructions.
Apart from that, they can simply admire the view.

There is a downside. Prospective guests will be aware that this would be a high-risk vacation -- one for which they are unlikely to get adequate insurance cover. Holidaying in orbit, at least at the start of the enterprise, would be for those prepared to accept that they might never come home. And such a vacation would only be for those who could afford it.

David Ashford, director of Bristol Spaceplanes in the United Kingdom, in his paper, "Space Tourism -- How Soon Will it Happen?" has estimated that at a ticket-price of $10,000, "...probably more than one million fare-paying passengers would visit space each year as tourists, requiring a fleet of more than 50 spaceplanes."

There's money to be made here. Get in on the ground floor, and you'll go to the stars -- or at least take the first major step on the way.
Copyright © 2000 Paul S. Jenkins

Note: This article was originally published in Jackhammer E-zine in July 2000. Used with permission.