What's the Big Idea?
In space these days, it's feast or famine. At a time when our infrastructure appears to be breaking down--from aging weather satellites to NASA warning the International Space Station may face an unprecedented evacuation--we are also witnessing an explosion in luxury space tourism that is exposing the gap between the Haves and Have-Nots in space.
At a time when governments are tightening their belts as they weigh the costs of future space exploration, a Russian company called Orbital Technologies has recently announced they will be launching a hotel in space called "Hotel in the Heavens" in 2016. It will cost $164,000 for an individual to travel on a Russian Soyuz rocket (read: not very comfy) to the hotel, and then an additional $820,000 for a five-day stay. Quick math: that's nearly $1 million. (But as the old saying goes, if you have to ask how much it costs, you can't afford it).
This is certainly not the first space-tourism venture out there. Celebrities including Paris Hilton, Tom Hanks and Stephen Hawking have already signed up for Richard Branson's comparatively cheap $200,000 Virgin Galactic suborbital flights set to launch next year. However, Orbital Technologies is aimed at a different clientele.
Who would pony up $1 million for a five-day space boondoggle? Orbital Technologies is obviously targeting the ultra-rich, as well as people working for private companies looking to do research in space. And yet, according to luxury travel expert Mark Ellwood, the $60 million Hotel in the Heavens is being built to service a very specific sub-set of the ultra-rich. Wealthy Russians, in particular, are big travelers, says Ellwood, and Russians are addicted to luxury travel much more so than their elite cohorts from other emerging markets such as China, India and Brazil.
According to Ellwood, any luxury hotel GM you talk to will attest to this: the Russian elite are "always looking for the next opportunity for one-upmanship." In other words, everyone in this set already owns a mega-yacht, and they have the means to "gild every item in their home." And yet, in this new Gilded Age of Russian one-upmanship, these mega-spenders see space "as the final luxury frontier."
Indeed, space tourism is becoming just another form of conspicuous consumption. And why not? According to Ellwood, Russians have reinvented luxury status symbols in a way that would make American status symbols "look like they were bought at Walmart."
For instance, Ellwood shared with Big Think an anecdote about one particular Russian oligarch who spent $40K a night for a hotel in Maldives, and another $40K per night to have a yacht at his disposal during his stay. According to Ellwood, the oligarch never once sailed the yacht. It was just "set dressing for the sunset view from his room."
The lap of luxury: Hotel in the Heavens (above), unlike the International Space Station, will be equipped with showers.
What's the Significance?
While it would be an impressive bit of one-upmanship to stay in a hotel in space, Hotel in the Heavens hardly seems like a luxury experience, at least by earthly standards. For instance, space tourists will have to eat meals that are prepared on Earth and then re-heated in microwaves in space. Luxury travelers accustomed to sheets with 1,500 thread counts will be sleeping in bags strapped to the walls of the zero gravity hotel. Ellwood sees this all as quite a business challenge.
To begin with, Russian billionaires would have no interest in staying in space for five days. According to Ellwood, "they would want to book an express and would actually pay extra just to come home sooner."
Another problem: there isn't any established hierarchy in the cosmos--the space equivalent of a penthouse suite, if you will. "Is it a room with a view of Venus?" wonders Ellwood. (Sure, you will get to glimpse 16 sunrises and sunsets a day as you orbit Earth, yet there is nowhere to park your trophy yacht to dress up the view).
Furthermore, the Russian luxury clientele would also not be so keen on taking the rigorous training required to travel into space, and they certainly wouldn't be caught dead in the normal space attire. "There will need to be a line developed like Versace for Space," says Ellwood, "because people will expect that."
To each his own adventure, one could say. Not so fast, says Ellwood. "Russians don't care about adventure travel," he says. "They're not going on hikes in the Amazon. They're renting penthouse suites. This is about luxury." By the same token, companies like Orbital Technologies better make all their money upfront, he says, because very quickly the novelty value will wear off. "In one year," Ellwood says, "Russian taste will have shifted."
Follow Mark Ellwood on Twitter @markjellwood