Friday, February 24, 2006

OK. Good. And Then?

The good news is that Sir Richard Branson and company are coming up with a way for us (relatively well to do) mortals to experience spaceflight. This is great stuff, and we have every reason to be ecstatically happy. Starting in about 2008, people will start queueing up outside the gates of the New Mexico Spaceport to take a ride with Virgin Galactic. The lucky/wealthy participants allowed in will hop into the SpaceshipOne derived ship and be shot to the edge of space, where, for a few short minutes, they will trod the high, untrespassed sanctity of space, put out their hands and touch the face of God, or something along those lines.

I don't mean to be flip, as I would dearly love to have the chance to give it a go, but something worries me a bit about the general sub-orbital business. That is, it doesn't go anywhere, per se. Yeah, it goes up to the edge of space allright, but only for a few minutes. Then it comes down and lands on the same field it left. That's the whole ride. You get your astronaut wings, maybe eat dinner, and then go home. It's great stuff to tell your friends and family, but the problem is that after about a thousand or so people have done the exact same thing, then what? You don't really want to be the 30,000th passenger paying $200,000 to take that ride, do you?

One of the things the Apollo program taught me was that the public loses interest in great adventures once the novelty wears off. So my fear is that this is what will happen to sub-orbital flight. It may also happen with commercial orbital flight when that gets here. "So what is to be done," I asked myself, and this is what I came up with.

Creating a Space Destination - The Space Resort/Spa/Casino

So here's the deal. People want to go somewhere in their rockets, not just shoot up and come back down. So give the people what they want - a place to stay in space. In this case, a low earth orbit space station. And given that a space tourist will to have some serious dough, they're not going to want to go to a bunch of tin cans duct taped together, they're going to want to spend their time in a full service establishment. They're going to want big windows to look out of. They're going to want to float around in zero-g, but at other times they'll want the firmness of a floor beneath them. So the space station will be spun to simulate gravity. Then, they're going to want something to do, like take a spacewalk/tour; be entertained in various ways; or buy souvenirs and other items available only in space -- moonrocks for instance.

A few economic considerations come to mind at this point. Firstly, if the station is big enough, and provides food through its own greenhouses, fish ponds, etc. Then the biggest price the hotel would charge is the transportation up and back. Staying in the hotel for an extended period would be possible (insanely expensive by earth standards, but much less than the ride up), and as long as the guest didn't over do purchases of earth manufactured food, drink, etc. He/she would be able to get by on a few tens of thousands of dollars a day. People with lots of money will start spending prolonged periods in space and start becoming acclimatized to the idea of space as a destination/place to live, not just a temporary adventure. Some might pursue permanent accomodations. Depending upon how it was legally implemented, a space hotel/condominium could offer many tax and legal advantages to the uber-wealthy.

Once things get going, the ever adventurous tourists will begin clamouring for tours to far off destinations, which means that lunar tourism is next. Lunar adventures will lead to lunar settlements, just as the space hotel led to low earth orbit settlement. By this path, we will settle the solar system.