Sun, Apr 08, 2018 - Page 15 News List

Space: The final frontier in luxury tourism

Aurora Station has room rates starting at about US$792,000 a night, and is planning to welcome its first guests in 2022, but a former space policy adviser said the aggressive timetable might be a marketing ploy

By Justin Bachman  /  Bloomberg

The Canadarm 2 robotic arm reaches out to grapple a SpaceX Dragon cargo spacecraft to pull into a port on the International Space Station on April 17, 2015.

Photo: AFP / NASA

Aboard the International Space Station (ISS), an astronaut’s life is typically work, exercise, rest, repeat. However, what if your chance of having the right stuff for NASA’s astronaut corps is, to say the least, minimal?

Aurora Station, billed as the “first luxury hotel in space,” might be for you. Houston, Texas-based Orion Span Inc hopes to launch the modular station in late 2021 and welcome its first guests the following year, with two crew members accompanying each excursion.

The platform would orbit 320km above the Earth, offering six guests 384 sunrises and sunsets as they speed around the planet for 12 days.

Once, such a thing would have clearly been the stuff of fiction. Now, in the age of Space Exploration Technologies Corp (SpaceX), Blue Origin LLC, 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 civilization,” said Orion Span founder and chief executive officer Frank Bunger, a former software engineer.

However, Orion Span’s offering would not be for everyone: 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 said. “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 US$9.5 million per person, or about US$791,666 a night.

Aurora Station is planned as a 10.6m-by-4.3m module, or roughly the interior volume of a Gulfstream G550 private jet, Bunger said.

The station would accommodate as many as four guests, plus the two crew. The company requires an US$80,000 deposit, which is fully refundable, and began accepting payments on Thursday.

Orion Span is assessing potential funding sources to get the endeavor off the ground, but would not disclose how much it wants to raise for the project, a spokeswoman said.

It reflects the type of commercial venture that has become more common over the past decade, fueled by decreases in launch costs and an influx of venture capital.

Since 2015, start-up space companies have attracted US$7.9 billion in investment, according to Bryce Space & Technology LLC, a consulting firm.

“The commercialization of LEO [low Earth orbit] is an exciting prospect, but it will be an exercise in determining what ideas are more real than others,” said 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 and chief of staff 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 might be a ploy to assess “what kind of market might be out there for this,” Larson said.

Van Espahbodi, managing partner of Starburst Accelerator LLC, a consulting and venture firm, said that the public-relations push behind Orion Span might 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.

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