Of all the sweeping views in all the dream destinations, this one might be the most universally awe inspiring: If all goes as planned, in 2025, space tourists will be gazing out their hotel windows at Earth.
“The four-person crew on the first privately chartered SpaceX flight that returned last September said they could have stayed up in space for weeks just looking out the window watching Earth go by, so we’ll make sure to add plenty of windows,” says Tim Alatorre, chief operating officer and cofounder of Alabama-based Orbital Assembly Corp. His company is planning to build what would be the first and the largest privately operated orbiting space hotel.
The space station hotel, known as Pioneer, would also give up to 28 travelers a close look at the Northern Lights from one of five floating two-story modules orbiting between the North and South Pole, just above the latitude of the International Space Station. Now that the design is complete, the company is working to make the space hotel habitable and expects to begin assembly and testing here on Earth later this year.
“You’ll get views of the entire Earth that can’t be beat,” says Alatorre. The customizable modules (the largest being 4,300 square feet), which Orbital Assembly plans to retrofit for more guests, would offer a compact and stylish room with a view, bed, and a desk for the most remote kind of work.
How much will itcost?
For now, the estimated 4-to-18-hour trip (depending on space shuttle route) will cost at least $55 million—the same price per ticket for that first privately chartered SpaceX orbital mission. And that doesn’t even include hotel costs. But Orbital Assembly Corp. expects that on this standard two-week getaway the big ticket item—launch costs—will drop significantly with technological advances over the next few years as it begins to construct the hotel.
While space travel is still in its infancy, Orbital Assembly Corp. plans to further offset costs by building a business park around the hotel, where scientists will test out commercial technologies like rocket engines, life support systems, space habitats, and even advanced pharmaceuticals. (The company declined to release construction and production costs.)
Why it has taken so long to design a space hotel
Earthlings have long imagined what it would be like to live in space while tuning into Star Wars, The Martian, Apollo 13, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and other stories on the screen. Yet, since the first human being traveled into space in 1961, followed eight years later by Neil Armstrong’s moon landing and the construction of the International Space Station in 1998, only about 600 people have traveled into space.
Sure, it’s ridiculously expensive, but the technology is there—so why has it taken so long to start designing this space hotel and a handful others in development? Gravity.
The issue is that today astronauts can float comfortably in microgravity inside the International Space Station for only so long. There, in the near absence of gravity, or microgravity, astronauts feel weightlessness as if they’re free-falling in a continual state of orbit around the Earth about 16 times per day. The problem is that space sickness—essentially the opposite of motion sickness from the lack of bodily movement—can lead to difficulty moving in space, and over time, serious long-term biochemical changes like bone and muscle loss and heart conditions even after returning to Earth. And then there are the more immediate practical hurdles.
“Living in microgravity is uncomfortable. Certain things we take for granted, like having a glass of water and having that water stay in the glass, or having the glass stay where you put it down,” Alatorre says.
The Pioneer hotel, on the other hand, plans to rely on a newer artificial gravity that strikes a balance between microgravity and Newton’s gravity we know here on Earth to help prolong human life.
To find that sweet spot, Orbital Assembly Corp. is partnering with former NASA astronaut Mae Jemison and the University of California, Irvine to further study the effects of artificial gravity on our health, livability, and comfort.
Orbital Assembly’s new rotating artificial gravity ring counters weightlessness so tourists can walk or take a sip of water without dumping it on their face. And, thanks to Neil Armstrong’s famous skip and shuffle moonwalk, we already know that adapting to a similar amount of gravity on the moon (about one-sixth of that on Earth) is relatively quick and painless.
While hotel activities (from dining to stargazing) would take place inside, the company plans to provide a pressurized microgravity room where tourists can float and spin like an astronaut. Another perk of the artificial gravity hotel would be the first full-service restaurant in space, which sure beats space food pouches and squeeze bottles.
Other companies may attempt to build space hotels, too
Of course, Orbital Assembly Corp. isn’t the only company reaching for the stars. Since NASA announced the 2031 retirement of the aging International Space Station (into a remote section of the Pacific Ocean) many companies are hoping to fill the void with commercial space stations. Axiom, which contracted with SpaceX to host those private astronauts (and has partnered with NASA to add components to the International Space Station), is developing a free-flying microgravity commercial space station. Similar efforts are taking place at Blue Origin Orbital Reef, in partnership with Boeing, Amazon, and others, and at NanoRacks with Lockheed Martin and Voyager Space. Meanwhile, Northrop Grumman is working with NASA to fly unmanned cargo missions to the International Space Station and to create habitats near the moon as part of its Artemis program.
But so far, Orbital Assembly is the only company to announce a plan for an artificial gravity space hotel. (In March 2021, space tourism startup Orion Span announced it had ceased plans for the first orbiting hotel and refunded all deposits.) Until 2025, the team will have their hands full raising capital, researching the effects of artificial gravity, and developing shielding technologies to reduce radiation. By fall, Orbital Assembly hopes to start constructing modules in its new integration, testing, and assembly facility in Huntsville, Alabama, aka Rocket City. And if Pioneer takes off on schedule, as soon as 2027 Orbital Assembly will open a second space hotel, Voyager Station, with bigger rooms for 400 guests, a lounge bar, and even a basketball court—because the sky is hardly the limit.