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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 April 2019

Space hotels and orbital condos - the future of hospitality is almost here

Orion Span's Aurora Station space hotel already has 26 guest bookings and orbital and even interplanetary tourism is now on the cards

If, as Captain James T Kirk would intone at the start of Star Trek TV shows, space is the final frontier, would you be willing to pay $9.5 million, or $790,000 per night, to experience 12 days there?

Frank Bunger, chief executive and founder of Orion Span, is confident many will part with that sum to holiday at the company's planned Aurora Station, first reported by The National in January, billed as the world's first orbital luxury space hotel.

To put the price tag in context, the Royal Penthouse Suite at the President Wilson Hotel in Geneva - the most expensive hotel on earth, according to Lonely Planet - costs a comparatively budget-friendly $80,000 per night.

Mr Bunger's company has a target of welcoming the first guests at the space hotel's check-in by 2022, although the reality is proving a little more challenging.

"We can do the full project within three years, we're confident of that," Mr Bunger tells The National. "However, lining up fundraising to align with those goals is turning out to be a bottleneck. So while we're still aiming for the same goal, it is likely it will become a little later."

It may not be such a far-fetched idea. Already, space is populated with man-made craft and even a permanent human presence aboard the International Space Station.

Unlike SpaceX and Blue Origin, Orion Span will not build its own rocket to get the Aurora into space, says Mr Bunger. "We'll be purchasing launch services from a third-party provider. We're in talks with a few such providers," he says, declining to name which ones.

So far, Mr Bunger says interest, even at that astronomical $9.5m price tag, has been "very positive".

"We developed Aurora Station to provide a turnkey destination in space," he says. "Twenty-six tourists have put down a deposit to go aboard." Oddly enough, the deposit equates to one night at the Royal Penthouse Suite - $80,000.

A VLCSnap of the Interior of Aurora Station. Courtesy Orion Span
Planned interior of Aurora Station. Courtesy: Orion Span

And perhaps that interest is not surprising considering $9.5m is quite a bit less than the estimated $20m to $40m private citizens paid for single trips to the ISS between 2001 and 2009. Given that the space hotel is designed to host two non-paying crew members and four guests, one full booking would net Orion Span $38m.

Still, apart from billionaires, $9.5m is a vast amount of money for a holiday, but Mr Bunger is not alone in believing it's a realistic proposal - even at that price.

"A number like $9.5m sounds ‘reasonable'," John E Bradford, president and chief operating officer of US-based SpaceWorks Enterprises.

SpaceWorks specialises in the design and assessment of advanced space concepts for both government and commercial customers.

"The primary questions will be how large and sustainable is the market at that price point, how quickly can you generate revenues, and what is the upfront cost - likely to be in the billions of dollars - and can it be raised," he says.

And he adds: "Unfortunately, unlike the recent small satellite paradigm shift, you can’t make people smaller. Thus, there is no ability to start small and scale up your system like the small launch companies are able to do. You can incrementally grow the station, but that initial operational capability is still a very tall order."

Mr Bunger, without divulging figures, says the firm has secured investment from Pear Ventures, an early stage venture fund, and Berkeley SkyDeck, a research university accelerator - both based in California. "We're currently working on the next round of investors," he adds.

Mr Bradford points to the technological challenges that any company planning such a venture would encounter. "Endo [within the atmosphere] or exo-atmospheric flight at the required speeds has its challenges either way," he says. "For Aurora, it will likely be some time before that system is operational.

"A 2022 time-frame is very aggressive, particularly when compared to the time-frame for other similar endeavours," he adds. "Very patient and supportive backers are required to make all these efforts a success."

Apart from the companies involved in the space tourism sector, for localities on the ground that house launch sites, the prospect of economic development, jobs, rising income and revenues is likely to be attractive.

"The best market for the numerous spaceports being developed all over the world is probably in the space tourism sector," says Mr Bradford. "There is greater potential in this sector for creating jobs, local infrastructure development and revenue compared to others.

"For the suborbital market in particular, each site can provide a unique customer experience that would improve the overall market with repeat customers."

That could prove a boost for the UAE's rapidly developing space sector.

In March, Mohammed Al Ahbabi, director general of the UAE Space Agency, and George Whitesides, chief executive of Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic, and The Spaceship Company (TSC), signed a memorandum of understanding that outlines cooperation across a range of areas including plans to bring Virgin Galactic spaceflights to the UAE for education, science and technology research, as well as potential space tourism flights in the future, state news agency WAM reported.

Under the agreement, the parties intend to plan for a SpaceShipTwo and carrier aircraft vehicle pair that would be operated from the UAE, collaborate to develop a "Centre of Excellence" for zero gravity research in the country and develop spaceship launch plans from the UAE’s Al Ain airport.

The space vehicle will be utilised by customers in the region as a science platform for high-frequency space research, as well as private individuals to experience space, WAM said.

In September, the UAE's first astronaut will be sent to the ISS and, further down the line, the UAE plans to launch an exploration probe to Mars to mark the nation’s 50th anniversary in 2021. The UAE Space Agency also intends to establish the first human colony on Mars by 2117.

Establishing a viable commercial launch-site space tourism sector will be no easy feat for any country, says Mr Bradford. "The challenge is that there are only a few space tourism companies compared to 50-plus [announced] satellite launch providers, therefore every spaceport can’t just focus on space tourism.

"There are too many launch companies, though given the current market size, the majority will not survive. So these localities need to chose wisely if they are going to be competing to host these companies in any way."

He sees space tourism as an important business area in the growing ecosystem that is commercial space. It can and does "push the development of new technologies and creates high-tech jobs requiring a skilled workforce", he says.

In his publication Textbook of Space Tourism, Robert A Goehlich, an assistant professor at Embry-Riddle Worldwide's Berlin Campus, writes: "When mass space tourism flights become a reality, there may also be demand for related products and services. Products made for astronauts are expensive currently, in part because they are not produced in quantities sufficient to achieve economies of scale and because they require high levels of reliability, compactness, and special certifications. Based on increasing number of tourists, however, this industry would expand and new markets would emerge.”

Expanding the number of people willing and able to take a space vacation is seen as key to the long-term development of the industry, according to Professor Sam Cole at the Department of Urban and Regional Planning, University at Buffalo, New York.

Prof Cole points to a paper written by Patrick Collins, a professor of economics at Azabu University in Japan specialising in space economics and space tourism, projecting that by 2100, there could be annually 30 million suborbital, 40 million orbital, and 10 million lunar surface travellers – but is that a realistic assessment and, if so, what will be the drivers behind such growth?

"The UNWTO [UN World Tourism Organisation] has the current number of tourists worldwide at around 1.5 billion, so the numbers are plausible," Prof Cole tells The National. "Think of the growth of automobiles in the last century. The drivers probably would be similar – richer, younger people who can afford it, and just our basic urge to do crazy stuff."

Mr Bradford is more sceptical. "While I am pretty optimistic, I think it is too early to make these types of forecasts 80 years into the future," he says.

Such predictions are, he says "unnecessarily speculative, very hard to justify, and that timeline is of no interest to investors".

"We don’t yet have the technologies and capabilities identified that can support millions of visitors to space, particularly when it comes to reliability and safety. We should be focusing on the market potential over the next 15 to 25 years, which is still a long time period to project over."

Orion Span is, in some ways, catching up with the competition. Virgin Galactic is already taking bookings, while Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin and Elon Musk's SpaceX also have fee-paying passengers in their sights.

Indeed, SpaceX aims to launch the first private mission around the moon in 2023 using its Big Falcon Rocket, with up to eight seats for the inaugural flight purchased by a Japanese billionaire who is taking applications from artists to join him. Yusaku Maezawa, a former rock-band drummer and the founder of the Japanese online retailer Zozotown, placed a "substantial" down payment to take the trip, Mr Musk said in September, estimating the full ticket price at about $5bn.

If Blue Origin and the Virgin enterprise are anything to go by, Mr Bunger's optimism about the potential market for Aurora is well founded. Stephen Attenborough, commercial director of Virgin Galactic, said in 2017 that anyone buying a ticket for its SpaceShipTwo suborbital spaceflight is unlikely to fly until 2021 because of the backlog of about 650 customers already holding tickets.

Mr Bradford concurs. "In terms of first to market, I think Virgin Galactic will claim victory with the first paying passengers," he says. "That has been a 15-year endeavour.

"They will be quickly followed by Blue Origin, though. The time-frame for SpaceX is obviously longer," he says. "Their point-to-point travel idea is interesting, but I don’t think it is a robust enough solution for routine travel compared to systems with more aircraft-like operations. It may have a sustainable, niche market as part of an overall, high-end global-travel experience."

The long-term is also on Mr Bunger's mind. The Aurora, he says, is just the beginning. "I foresee a future need for spacecraft around other planets - hotel or otherwise. Future Moon or Mars missions may need a waypoint, a fuel or storage depot, or a safe refuge if things go wrong on the surface.

"My goal is to take meaningful strides towards the long-term colonisation of space. Of all space destinations, low earth orbit [LEO] is the closest and safest. Colonisation starts first with making visiting space more comfortable and more routine. So that's the early goal of Aurora Station - take the most thrilling experience people are ever going to have, and have as many people as possible enjoy that experience," he says.

Should the Aurora actually make it into orbit, what might a guest expect to experience aboard for their $9.5m bill?

"We're providing an authentic astronaut experience," Mr Bunger says. "We want guests to experience what it's like to be a professional astronaut. At the same time, we want to make it more thrilling and more luxurious. That means all of the excitement of being an astronaut with none of the rote, boring stuff."

Whether a stay at the Aurora will actually be "luxurious" is another matter, at least initially, and will require a significant investment time-wise.

Space holidaymakers will relax in sleek sleeping pods on the Aurora Station.  Courtesy Orion Span
Space holidaymakers will relax in sleek sleeping pods on the Aurora Station. Courtesy Orion Span

Last year, Mr Bunger said, before travelling to the Aurora Station guests would participate in a three-month Orion Span Astronaut Certification programme to prepare for their stay in space.

"Orion Span has additionally taken what was historically a 24-month training regimen to prepare travellers to visit a space station and streamlined it to three months, at a fraction of the cost," he said.

Mr Bradford says, to start with, the concept of luxury aboard the space hotel is a moot point. "Early adopters for these adventures generally do not prefer a ‘luxury’ experience," he says. "They want a thrilling experience with an element of risk or failure.

"Over time, that market will dissipate and be replaced with a segment that prefers safety and luxury. At the same time, the supporting technology and our capabilities will be improving to support a safer experience with better accommodations for participants. This will likely evolve slowly, but hopefully at an ever-decreasing price point, too."

Regarding a "luxury" stay on the Aurora, Prof Cole is more succinct. "Sure. Sitting in a sauna with a couple of alien cocktails watching the Moon rise." He likens it to "lying on a Caribbean island beach at sunset waiting for the 'green flash' as the sun dips below the horizon".

"I have only seen it once, but it keeps drawing me back," he says.

Not content with a space hotel, Mr Bunger is also aiming to become the first space estate agent: Orion Span plans to later sell dedicated modules of the Aurora Station as the world's first condominiums in space. Due to the station's unique architecture, modules can be added in-orbit, he says.

"Our architecture is such that we can easily add capacity, enabling us to grow with market demand like a city growing skyward on Earth," Mr Bunger says. "Future Aurora owners can live in, visit or sublease their space condo.

"This is an exciting frontier, and Orion Span is proud to pave the way."

Updated: April 8, 2019 06:38 PM

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