Orbital Assembly aims for space hotel/business park in this decade

In April 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first human being to travel to space. Three weeks later Alan Shephard followed in Gagarin’s footsteps, and within a decade we had boots on the Moon. It seemed as though the space age had arrived, and humans of all varieties were destined for a life among the stars. In the six decades since Gagarin’s historic flight, we have realized some of our spacefaring dreams, but not all of them. The shuttle program offered a reusable spacecraft ferrying astronauts to and from low-Earth orbit, and the International Space Station offered an off-planet home, continuously inhabited for more than 20 years. You can hear the story of the ISS, from the people who have lived there, in The Wonderful: Stories from the Space Station.

Despite those advancements, space remains the domain of the very few. As of November 2021, almost 60 years exactly since Gagarin’s first flight, only 600 people had left Earth, most of them working for one of the world’s space agencies. That number grows with each successful mission, but it isn’t growing quickly enough for the folks at Orbital Assembly, a commercial real estate company looking to create new real estate in space.

The company has two space stations planned, named Pioneer and Voyager, both of which would provide facilities in low-Earth orbit for businesses, scientists, and tourists. Unlike existing or previous space stations, Pioneer and Voyager are designed to provide variable gravity ranging from the free-floating microgravity modern astronauts enjoy to a little more than half of Earth’s gravity. If you’ve ever spun an object on a string, you know how it will work. By spinning the station, passengers will get simulated gravity which gets stronger the closer you are to the outside edge, while those in the middle will be in freefall.

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“We have a scalable architectural plan to go from a microgravity environment to a hybrid gravity environment to provide at least partial gravity to areas of the station so that people might have more comfortable congress,” Rhonda Stevenson, president and CEO of Orbital Assembly told SYFY WIRE.

It’s increasingly clear that living in microgravity causes undesired negative health impacts to astronauts, and some of those effects take place almost immediately after launch. Astronauts are more likely to develop persistent anemia, for instance, and those effects can last even after returning to Earth. Having space hotels and research centers with at least some simulated gravity might help to stave off some of those concerns, and Orbital Assembly is keeping their eyes toward that problem.

The company partnered with famed astronaut and Star Trek guest star, Dr. Mae Jemison, to study the impact of living in microgravity. If the stations are built and get to orbit, the work will continue in space, and guests of the stations will have an opportunity to participate in that research.

Rendering of Pioneer Station's interior
Rendering of Pioneer Station's interior

Rendering of Pioneer Station's interior Photo: Orbital Assembly Corporation

“There will be a lot of touristy kinds of activities… once you’re done floating around and taking pictures and just stargazing, people want to be productive. People realize they are participating in the expansion of a new frontier and that means doing meaningful and productive acts and deeds. They will be participating in a lot of the science and research and development projects that our partner companies and clients are looking to have performed as part of their stay,” Stevenson said.

She went on to clarify that visiting one of Orbital Assembly’s stations won’t require that you be put to work. You’re free to float around all day and eat astronaut ice cream, but there will be opportunities to participate in research if that’s something a commercial space traveler wants to do. Being a space scientist, even briefly, sounds like a pretty cool vacation between endless summersaults in the microgravity part of the station. Before we can get there though, the stations need to be built and launched.

“Our plan is to send up our first module, which is a station in a box. It’s a large structure that’s habitable and can support up to seven people. That’s one component of several that we will launch, funding contingent, to build our Pioneer Station,” Stevenson said.

We’ve been talking about space tourism for decades now, and it seems perpetually five years away. For most of that time the notion of a space hotel felt more like science fiction than a plausible reality, but those attitudes are starting to change. With the recent successes of commercial space travel by companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin, a hotel in orbit feels possible. Still, there are hurdles to overcome. Throughout our conversation, Stevenson was clear that all of their predictions and promises were contingent on getting the funding to pull it off.

It has been reported that Pioneer, the smaller of the two stations, could be operational as soon as 2025. According to Stevenson, that timeline is technically correct, but only if they get the funding to launch and construct the stations soon. Three years feels pretty tight, and we’ve seen these timelines fall apart both at other commercial space companies and at NASA. Stevenson referenced relationships and quotes from existing space travel product manufacturers as part of the reason Orbital Assembly can move so quickly, once the check is signed.

“In leveraging those providers and suppliers… we can deliver our first module in as soon as 28 months. We can complete construction, again funding contingent, for Pioneer Station in less than 48 months,” Stevenson said.

If all goes according to plan, the Pioneer Station will be followed by the Voyager Station, a sprawling space hotel capable of holding up to 400 occupants at a time. A docking hub in the center will attach to delivery craft and elevators will carry guests to the station’s edge where they’ll find habitation and activity modules. Simulated gravity will be about one-sixth of Earth’s gravity, the same as you’d find on the Moon.

That level of gravity is intentional. Orbital Assembly hopes that their stations will serve as a test bed for future space exploration. Scientists and engineers could use the simulated Moon gravity to test instruments or building materials for more permanent use on the Moon. And the gravity could be adjusted depending on the specific conditions required for an experiment. If you wanted to test something in Martian gravity, for instance, the station could do that.

“How will you test or vet your equipment if you don’t have a testbed with variable gravity to make sure your structures and your engineering conforms to that level of gravity? Orbital Assembly is the perfect testbed facility for those research items,” Stevenson said.

Assuming all goes well, your future family vacation could include a week or two in space. You can play games, do space science, or just fly around to your heart's content, but it’s going to cost you. Precisely how much isn’t yet clear, but space travel isn’t cheap no matter who’s doing it. Three civilians recently paid $55 million each for a ride on a SpaceX craft to the International Space Station for three days. Stevenson wouldn’t give a firm number, but did say it would be expensive.

“Definitely wealthier, higher net worth individuals will be able to go first, because those tickets will be higher. The more people who go to space… the more people who participate in that process is absolutely going to drive those prices down so we can accommodate everyone. We absolutely believe space is for everyone,” Stevenson said.

Having hotels in orbit, even around or on the Moon, feels almost inevitable, a question of when not if. Orbital Assembly says the time is now; we hope they’re right.

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