Could the next space station be a luxury hotel?
In this long exposure photo, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket takes off from Kennedy Space Center Launch Complex 39A in Cape Canaveral, Fla., Carrying four astronauts to the International Space Station on Friday, April 23, 2021.
The ISS, announced in 1984, seemed to do the trick. However, like many government projects with multiple stakeholders, it consistently went over budget and on schedule. Its first launch didn’t start until 1998. Total costs over the three decades up to 2015 would have exceeded $ 150 billion, giving the ISS a decent claim to be the most expensive thing ever built. . For that kind of money, Americans rightly expected the ISS to do a lot. Yet the facility has been vastly underutilized for most of its history, due both to chronic mismanagement and the high cost of delivering people and equipment to space.
Starting in 2005, NASA implemented a new strategy to address this latter problem. It has signed agreements with three private space companies to deliver cargo and crew to the station, in hopes of both cutting costs and encouraging the development of a commercial space industry. NASA would act as an advisor and investor and select the most promising design to replace the soon-to-be-retired space shuttle.
It was a long-term bet that little-known companies like SpaceX could do better than traditional aerospace entrepreneurs. And it was a huge success: Sixteen years later, the cost of launching people and equipment to the ISS has dropped dramatically, and the commercial space is booming. Last year, Estee Lauder Cos. Had the face cream photographed on the station. This year, tourists will arrive on vacation via a SpaceX rocket (at $ 55 million per ticket) and Tom Cruise will be filming scenes for an upcoming movie.
Also read: 20 years of life and science on the International Space Station
NASA astronauts (from left) Shannon Walker, Victor Glover, Mike Hopkins and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Soichi Noguchi, inside the SpaceX Crew Dragon Resilience spacecraft aboard the SpaceX GO Navigator recovery ship after landing in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Panama City, Florida.
But NASA’s vision goes far beyond these one-off cases. In 2020, the agency contracted with Axiom Space Inc. to attach modules (with interiors designed by Philippe Starck) to the ISS that will detach and form a commercial station that will include residential quarters as well as a laboratory. and a manufacturing plant. In March, he announced that he would fund up to four other companies to develop competing concepts, using a model similar to the one that led to SpaceX’s success. Many details remain to be worked out, including what exactly to do with the ISS. But a durable low-earth orbiting trade outpost has a lot to recommend. NASA should simply be a customer rather than an owner-operator, saving money for taxpayers or other space priorities. Companies could use the new platform to conduct microgravity experiments, pharmaceutical research, materials science testing and more. As costs come down, there is good reason to believe that they will come up with entirely new uses for it.
Of course, no one should expect the Hiltons to be in orbit just yet. But the dream of commercializing space is no longer just moonlight.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Adam Minter is a Bloomberg opinion columnist. He is the author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade” and “Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale”.
Also read: The International Space Station continues to connect humans and space