I recently went to meet Xavier Claramunt, the man behind ‘Galactic Suite’ – a project he maintains will put a hotel in orbit by 2012. Beyond this the GS project has plans for a hotel under the sea, one on top of a mountain, near orbit balloons that take sightseers to the edge of space and its own set of four private spaceports (this in marked contrast to the other players in the space tourism market who are collaborating on spaceport development). While most tourism firms might be considered to work along the x-axis (the Earth’s surface) Xavier wants to be first to sell experiences up and down the y-axis (from under the ocean to orbit).
I chose to see Xavier because his vision encompasses all the others. Whether he succeeds or not is not so important for the book (although I’m convinced he will achieve much of what he wants, though perhaps not to the degree or in the timescales he suggests!) but he’s grappling with all the issues – building spaceports, spaceplanes, orbital habitats etc – so is a good springboard to talk about all components in the space tourism picture. And in fact his reasoning for going his route is quite logical, if unproven (I won’t go into it here). He’s also bonkers in all the right ways, and gives great interview. Some choice quotes:
- “It’s easier for me to build a hotel in space than it is in Barcelona”
- “I can tell if I’m going to work with you by asking three questions: ‘what are you good at?’, ‘are you an orange or a lemon?’ and ‘what’s the square root or 725?’ ”
- “$3 billion is what? Nothing. The cost of a motorway”
Xavier assures me his mystery Saudi investors have no qualms about the cost. “It’s ego with them,” he says.
It does seem mankind is going back to space, but this time the charge is being led not by governments but by tourists. Space Tourism is, potentially, big business and numerous initiatives are beginning to grab the headlines – from Virgin Galactic’s sub-orbital experience (followed swiftly by a gaggle of spaceplane projects from companies like XCOR and Rocketplane XP) to more ambitious plans like Xavier’s to put a hotel in orbit (competitors include Bigelow Aersospace, Excalibur Almaz and the Space Island Project).
Beyond this manned missions to Mars and a permanent base on the moon are both in the offing. Russia, the United States, Japan, India and (allegedly) China are all grappling with the challenge of setting up a permanent base on our nearest celestial neighbour. (I’ll be visiting NASA in January to discuss their plans to go to the moon.)
40 years since Apollo we’re finally coming to a working partnership between state and the private sector in exploiting the solar system. (Indeed, when the Space Shuttle goes out of commission in 2010, NASA will be relying on commercial launch offerings to fulfil its commitments). Let’s just hope Easyjet don’t get in on the game. (This post would be far too long if I got onto my experiences at Barcelona airport with the orange uniformed face of ‘fuck you then’ air travel). Still, I did see a great pun on my trip, a lingerie store called ‘Bracelona’. Marvelous. In addition, I was amused by the ‘Hotel Colon’ (possible strapline: ‘Our staff aren’t up their arses, they’re up yours’ – thanks to Hannah Williams for suggesting that) and at Barcelona train station an information post which invites ‘Brief Questions’. Woe betide your enquiry is over a few syllables in this city…