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Vacation: The Final Frontier

Less than a decade from now, space hotels will offer a zero-G getaway

Email icon  thc215@nyu.edu

Visiting restaurants and strolling through gardens aren't unusual vacation activities--but imagine doing them under one-third the force of natural gravity. That's what Gene Meyers hopes his guests will do at his space hotel of the future: a revolving, Earth-orbiting space station shaped like a giant wheel. And in Meyers' vision, visitors will also share only-in-space experiences--like floating outside the station to the help the crew make repairs.

Meyers is the president and CEO of Space Island Group, and he's among the handful of pioneers with major financial backing who say that it won't be long before vacationers are packing their bags for space. These companies are not only leading the way in personal space travel, but are in the process of developing the space hotels of the near future.

Space Island Group is developing a stand-alone, orbital space structure that could serve a number of purposes, including a hotel. Meyers anticipates the hotel will hold 400 guests and 100 crewmembers. "We're sticking with technology that has been developed and used," Meyers said, noting his company expects to use patents and technologies developed by NASA and the U.S. Air Force. Aerospace companies that supply NASA will construct Meyers' project.

Meyers hopes to start building the hotel in space by 2010 and to open it in 2015. He estimates that a one-week trip will cost $200,000, which will include the flight up to the hotel.

If getting to space won't be cheap, neither will building the station. Space Island group plans to generate $10 billion for the startup through sales of solar power technology to India or China. The Space Island Group has been negotiating with both governments and is planning to strike a deal by the end of the year.

Meanwhile, Meyers is dreaming up ways for guests to relax--like zero gravity suites and opportunities to work in the onboard gardens that produce the food eaten onboard. He also expects the ballroom will prove a popular spot. "I think a lot of people will enjoy dancing under this partial-gravity situation," Meyers said.

Space Island Group has some competition. Bigelow Aerospace of Las Vegas is developing an inflatable earth-orbiting module, which would be able to function as a single hotel suite. Robert Bigelow, owner of the Budget Suites of America hotel chain, is investing $500 million of his own money in the project. The inflatable space-station module technology was developed by NASA as part of the TransHab project. The lightweight vehicles launch in a compressed state, allowing for less-powerful launch vehicles and more spacious modules. NASA pulled funding on the project before it ever got off the ground, and Bigelow bought the exclusive development rights.

The prospect of space vacation travel has become serious enough that the Rochester Institute of Technology now offers a class in space tourism, taught by Dr. Clint Wallington, who has previously worked with NASA and the International Space Station. The course focuses on business planning, and pushes students to think creatively about the unique opportunities and challenges of hospitality management in space, such as maintaining guest environments in space.

The entrepreneurs have yet to work out all the details of opening space to civilians. Meyers noted the health complications linked to long stays in space--issues that might afflict crew members. Bone loss can occur after a month in space, and other issues include space sickness, fluid pressure in the eyeballs and radiation. Risks to pregnant women are also a concern.

And of course, there's the likelihood that sooner or later--and especially in the early stages of the technology's testing--something will go tragically wrong.

"There's going to be accidents," said Leonard David, senior space writer for space.com. "Things are going to crash. People are going to get hurt, maybe even killed."

Dealing with the forces it can control, Space Island Group will take precautionary measures. All guests and employees will have to reserve their flights one month in advance, will undergo background checks, and have to pass a physical examination by doctors. In addition, each station will have emergency medical facilities onboard.

But first, Space Island Group and Bigelow will have to find passengers with not only strong stomachs, but deep pockets.

"It seems to require a small number of very wealthy clients to get started," said Theodore Hall of the University of Hong Kong, who has done research on the scientific and architectural sides of space habitats. "Then, like everything else, the price will fall and the clientele will rise as the industry develops." New startups offer sub-orbital space flights--such as Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic--may eventually help bring down the cost of getting to the vacation stations.

"It's all a question of money. It's doable," said Wallington. "Bill Gates could fund this if he wanted to."

Resorts orbiting Earth could begin construction as early as 2010.
Courtesy Space Island Group