Get away from it all — take a holiday in outer space
Aboard the International Space Station an astronaut’s life is typically work, exercise, rest, repeat. But people who do not have the right stuff for Nasa’s astronaut corps will soon also have a taste of that life.
Aurora Station is billed as the "first luxury hotel in space". Houston-based Orion Span hopes to launch the modular station in late 2021 and welcome its first guests the following year, with two crew members on each excursion.
The platform would orbit 320km above Earth, offering six guests 384 sunrises and sunsets as they race around the planet for 12 days at very high speeds.
Once, such a thing would have been the stuff of fiction. Now, in the age of SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, the idea that a private company would launch an orbiting hotel seems almost pedestrian.
"We want to get people into space because it’s the final frontier for our civilisation," says Orion Span’s founder and CEO, Frank Bunger, a former software engineer. Orion Span’s offering won’t be for everyone, however: launch and re-entry are not for the faint of heart.
"We’re not selling a hey-let’s-go-to-the-beach equivalent in space," Bunger says. "We’re selling the experience of being an astronaut. You reckon that there are people who are willing to pay to have that experience."
Beyond the physical limitations to embarking, there are also the fiscal ones.
The 12-day stay starts at $9.5m a person, or about $791,666 a night.
Aurora Station is planned as a module about 10.7m by 4.3m, or roughly the interior volume of a Gulfstream G550 private jet, according to Bunger.
The station would accommodate as many as four guests, plus the two crew. The company requires an $80,000 deposit, which is fully refundable, and has began accepting payments.
Orion Span is assessing potential funding sources to get the endeavour off the ground but won’t disclose how much it wants to raise for the project, a spokeswoman says.
It reflects the type of commercial venture that’s become more common over the past decade, fuelled by decreases in launch costs and an influx of venture capital. Since 2015 start-up space companies have attracted $7.9bn in investment, according to Bryce Space & Technology, a consulting firm.
"The commercialisation of [low Earth orbit] is an exciting prospect, but it will be an exercise in determining what ideas are more real than others," says Phil Larson, a former space policy adviser to former US president Barack Obama who worked for Elon Musk’s SpaceX. He is now assistant dean at the University of Colorado at Boulder’s College of Engineering and Applied Science.
Orion Span has yet to contract with a launch provider, either for its initial flights to build the station or for customer flights. The start-up’s aggressive four-year time frame may be a ploy, Larson says, to assess "what kind of market might be out there for this".
Van Espahbodi, managing partner of Starburst Accelerator, a consulting and venture firm, adds that the public relations push behind Orion Span may be an effective way to help the company attract funding, too.
Orion Span’s chief architect and operating and chief technical officers are former Nasa employees. The company said it has "developed proprietary technology to drive a full order of magnitude of cost out of the design and manufacture of a space station".
Bunger says the firm’s designs would work with most of the current launch configurations, such as Arianespace, SpaceX and United Launch Alliance. It could also partner with a government space agency, he says.
One reason Orion Span can target a price of less than $10m per person is because of declining launch prices, Bunger says. "Everybody’s forecasting that they’re going to fall.
"Almost every week there’s another rocket launch company that’s starting up with a new way to get to orbit cheaper, faster, better."
Orion Span joins a growing list of entrepreneurial firms that see cheaper access to space leading to a demand for more real estate in low Earth orbit.
Bigelow Aerospace, founded by lodging billionaire Robert Bigelow, deployed its 2.5m, 1,300kg inflatable activity module on the International Space Station in May 2016. In October, Nasa extended the two-year service period for the module — which is used for storage — to remain part of the space station until at least 2021.
Axiom Space, a Houston-based company also run by Nasa veterans, says it plans to launch habitation modules to complement the space station. Arizona-based World View Enterprises is developing a fleet of high-altitude platforms, called stratollites, carried by balloons to the edge of space. The stratollites are used for communications, surveillance, weather forecasting and atmospheric research. Recently, World View raised $48.5m.
But the new world of commercial spaceflight has yet to launch humans into space, let alone civilians, and leave them there for two weeks.
Prior to launch, Aurora Station travellers would have three months of training, beginning with online courses to understand "basic space flight, orbital mechanics and pressurised environments in space".
Hotel guests will also have required exercises on spacecraft systems and contingency training at the company’s Houston facility. No word yet on the minibar or turndown service.