As far back as Ptolemy and the mythical Icarus, mankind has craved the final frontier - outer space. Now, with commercial space flights looming on the horizon, it appears that the final frontier will soon be open to the public.
Naturally, Howard Wolf wants to give them a nice place to stay.
The managing partner of Hawaii-based luxury resort architecture firm Wimberly, Allison, Tong & Goo Inc., Mr. Wolf heads a team of architects intent on designing a space resort. Although the plan is still in the conceptual stages, Wolf envisions a spinning wheel with spokes much like a bicycle tire that will simulate gravity in some portions and retain zero gravity in others. And to keep costs down, it will be constructed largely of orbiting space junk like discarded fuel tanks from space shuttle missions.
For WAT&G, it's clearly a big jump from palm-lined beaches to the bitter cold of earth orbit. But it is only one of a growing number of starry-eyed companies hoping to make space tourism more comfortable, more accessible and eventually profitable.
Shimizu Corp., a Japanese company, has already made blueprints for an orbiting space hotel. And a Seattle consortium including adventure-travel company Zegrahm Space Voyages has already begun booking spots for $98,000 each on space flights scheduled to begin in late 2001 aboard a still-to-be-built "Space Cruiser" modeled after the X-15 high-altitude test plane.
That adventure junkies would want to go to space is no big surprise. Modern technology has made virtually any location on Earth accessible: Luxury cruises take backyard biologists on cushy voyages around Antarctica, and an African safari can be a five-star experience.
"They have run out of places to go. This is a new destination, a new challenge, a new frontier," says Scott Fitzsimmons, Zegrahm's vice president.
But unlike exotic destinations on Earth, space already has mass appeal thanks to dashing astronauts and glamorous missions like the Apollo lunar landings. What's more, this appeal is geographically and culturally broadbased. In a survey by the Japanese Rocket Society, 60 percent of Japanese respondents said they would be interested in some type of space travel. A similar survey in the United States also indicated significant interest among Americans.
This is what Wolf hopes to tap into. His firm's plans call for a space hotel to hold about 100 visitors as well as support staff. Food will be grown hydroponically aboard the resort, which will have bathrooms, beds, and other amenities.
"While it may not be equivalent to a Four Seasons or a Ritz-Carlton on Earth, to make it appealing to a larger segment of the population there should be some degree of creature comforts," Wolf says.
What to do?
Aside from the novelty, Wolf says he sees space as a place with limitless recreational possibilities. "Almost anything you can do on Earth you can do in space in a totally different way. Two dimensions become three dimensions," he says. "For example, soccer. You would not have a soccer field - you would have a soccer volume. You could play games in a sphere or cylinder."
Yet in many cases, when it comes to entertainment, the pioneers of space tourism are looking to Earth for guidance. "We've modeled all of our approaches after the cruise-ship industry," says John Spencer, a Los Angeles architect and developer who has participated in several space design projects for NASA and is also executive director of the Space Tourism Society. Like a cruise ship, space resorts will likely have a live-aboard staff that serves not only as hosts, but also as technicians who can repair and operate complex technology. In addition, space resorts will probably also have in-house entertainment to keep guests happy - much like cruise ships.
The barriers to viable space tourism, however, remain considerable. To get permission for space travel, Zegrahm will have to negotiate a still-developing but sure-to-be-complicated Federal Aviation Administration certification process in order to prove it can truly take passengers up safely. For this reason, several companies are pursuing launch sites outside the US, and some are looking at launches off mid-ocean platforms near the equator (the optimal place to launch payloads).
Cost will be the biggest barrier. When it comes to space, everything from electricity to food costs are, well, astronomical. This is largely a function of the high cost of space launches. But no one has developed a cheap vehicle for tourists, let alone one for less-fragile commercial payloads - which still cost hundreds of millions of dollars to put into orbit.
To that end, 16 groups are currently working on the X-Prize - a $10 million reward put up by a private foundation for the first space vehicle that can carry three adults 62 miles above the earth, make two flights in two weeks, and land intact.
But in space terms, that's pocket change. Research and development costs incurred by the space shuttle have run into the billions, and Mr. Spencer estimates that the price tag for a space resort will be as much as $4 billion to $6 billion.
Even Wolf, whose firm is pursuing the project without a paying client, agrees that a space hotel is unlikely for at least 15 years. "The Catch-22 of this whole business, [is that] for it to be available to the public it has to be more affordable," he explains. "And for it to be affordable, there has to more people traveling."
With a price tag of $98,000, Zegrahm's voyage is hardly affordable, and even with significantly cheaper means of space transportation, experts say the price of passage will remain in the tens of thousands of dollars for decades.
But time - and money - is on the space capitalists' side. "Technologies may come into play that don't even exist today that will make this more feasible and more affordable," says Wolf. The Travel Industry Association of America estimates annual travel spending in the US alone to be a whopping $473 billion - the third largest retail industry in this country and one that is growing steadily around the world.
When they travel, "more and more people seem to be seeking ... some kind of transformative experience," Wolf adds. "They are looking for more than a vacation lying on the beach, and they want something to show for it more than a tan. And what could be a more life-transforming experience than seeing our planet from 200 miles up?"