Space Review: Commercial Space Stations: Laboratories or Hotels?

starlab

Voyager used Space IAC to announce research partnerships for its commercial Starlab space station, as well as an agreement with Hilton to design accommodations for it. (credit: voyager space)


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One of the unusual side events associated with last month’s International Astronautical Conference (IAC) was not at the Paris Convention Center but several kilometers away at the Historic Paris Observatory. The purpose of the event had nothing to do with astronomy – although one could look through telescopes there on a clear autumn evening – but instead there was something quintessentially French: champagne.

“The difference between animals and humans is the culture,” Jeron said. “We wanted to be able to celebrate coexistence in space.”

At that event, Maison Mumm announced a partnership with commercial spaceflight company Axiom Space to take champagne into space. That partnership was more than just getting a bottle of Mumm and sticking it in the cargo hold of a future Axiom mission. Instead, Mumm worked with design firm and the French aerospace agency CNES to develop a special bottle, featuring aerospace-grade aluminum and a “completely reliable stainless steel opening and closing mechanism” that complies with both spaceflight safety regulations and those that govern champagne in France. The champagne itself, Mumm Cordon Rouge Stellar, is a special blend developed for this project, the company said, featuring “notes of ripe yellow fruit and grape peach, as well as dried fruit, hazelnut and praline.”

At the event, with Mumm’s floor champagne flowing freely from traditional bottles, officials at Maison Mumm, Axiom and others spoke about the partnership. But why make all efforts to send champagne into space? For Cesar Giron, head of the Maison Mumm, this was inevitable. “The difference between animals and humanity is culture,” he declared, noting that Mumm Champagne was part of the first French expedition to Antarctica in 1904. “We wanted to be able to celebrate coexistence in space.”

“Life is about experiences. It is about culture. It is about enjoying yourself in different ways,” said Michael Suffredini, CEO of Axiom Space.

So when will champagne fly into space? “We plan to fly on our next flight,” Suffredini said, referring to the Ax-2 mission that the company plans to fly to the International Space Station next spring. “We have some work to do to sort that out.”

However, flying champagne is not the same as drinking it. Consumption of alcohol is not permitted, at least on the American part of the International Space Station. “Well, one of the things that Axiom is known for is pushing the boundaries a little bit with the government,” he said. “We’re going to take it one step at a time. We’re going to shave the bottle and then talk about how we’re going to do our tests.” He added that he doesn’t think the company will have to wait until it starts adding its units to the International Space Station around mid-decade to test the champagne.

Axiom mom

Michael Suffredini, CEO of Axiom Space (center) talks about his partnership with Maison Mumm to fly champagne on future Axiom missions. (credit: Maison Maumee)

The Mumm-Axiom partnership wasn’t the only announcement in the week of the conference dealing with the topic of hospitality and commercial space stations. The day before, Voyager Space announced that it would be working with Hilton on the concept of the commercial space station Starlab. Hilton will be the Terminal’s “Official Hotel Partner”, assisting in the design of accommodations at the terminal. The companies will also work together on the “Earth-to-Space Astronaut Experience” and other tourism-related efforts.

The ad brought back memories of Barron Hilton’s 1960s proposals for “Lunar Hilton” and the Hilton Hotel’s veil on a rotating space station that was commissioned in 2001: space flight. The press release about the partnership mentioned “Hilton’s acclaimed history with space,” but, oddly enough, is instead linked to a project less than three years ago when Hilton’s DoubleTree chain transported and baked cookies on the International Space Station.

But the conference and accompanying events illustrated a divide regarding the marketing of commercial space stations. On the other hand, the stations are promoted as destinations for tourists, with accommodations by Hilton and champagne by Mumm. However, the same companies also emphasize those stations as destinations for research and opportunities for countries, not wealthy individuals, to live and work in space.

“It’s very, very important not to break it, because that’s the last thing you want to break at the station,” Kavandi said of the toilet. “You don’t want it to break.”

Voyager, for example, announced the signing of Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) with five Latin American space agencies and organizations to study flying payloads on Starlab and help plan use of the station and its George Washington Carver Science Park. This science park will include a ground component that the company has announced will be built at Ohio State University, starting with the Agronomy Building and later moving to its own building on the university’s Aerospace and Air Transportation campus.

Meanwhile, Axiom Space took advantage of the conference to announce several agreements to transport people or payloads. Perhaps the biggest was the announcement of a deal with the Saudi Space Authority, the Saudi Space Agency, to transport two Saudi astronauts on a future Axiom mission. The Saudi Space Authority said the two astronauts will fly next year, but it did not reveal how they were chosen other than that one of them would be a woman.

Axiom also provided few details about the flight of the Saudi astronauts amid speculation that they may go on the Ax-2 mission next spring; The company has not announced who will take two of the four seats on the Crew Dragon mission to the International Space Station. “This partnership highlights Axiom Space’s deep commitment to expanding the opportunities for human spaceflight to a larger share of the international community, as well as doubling scientific and technological development on Earth and in orbit,” Axiom CEO Suffredini said in a statement.

The Saudi agreement was one of several that Axiom announced during the conference. signed an agreement with the Turkish government to send the first Turkish astronaut into space on a future axiom mission, and announced memoranda of understanding with Canada and New Zealand for research activities; The agreement with the Canadian Space Agency also opened the door for Canadian astronauts on Axiom missions. In July, Axiom signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Hungary to study opportunities such as flying with a Hungarian astronaut.

Orbital Reef, a commercial space station project led by Blue Origin and Sierra Space, also appears to be interfering with the research and tourism markets. During a session of the International Advisory Committee, Sierra Space President Janet Kavandy discussed the importance of having a crew of professional astronauts running the station, and handling the facility’s day-to-day maintenance. “We are going to have people who have to maintain the space station so that the people who are there can do this amazing research on stem cells, and biological research,” she said, “you don’t have to worry about the toilet, or the IT system when it breaks.”

But companies are also considering what the terminal needs to support tourism. Kavandi cautions not to compare Orbital Reef to a five-star land resort. “It will be a little different in space,” she said, because there will be a smaller crew. “Part of the training I have in mind is to reduce expectations, but also to realize that what you will get out of this experience is more than you can possibly imagine.”

Those differences between the Orbital Reef and the Ground Hotel extend to the bathroom, which would be “primitive” in space. “It is very, very important not to break it, because that is the last thing you want to break at the station. You don’t want that to break.”

“As a community, I am very keen on developing food as an experience,” Brent Sherwood, Senior Vice President of Advanced Development Programs at Blue Origin, said at the session. He suggested that tourists might want to “eat like astronauts” for one day of their stay. “But other days, I think we need to learn how to actually cook in space. And nobody knows how to do that.”

Efforts by companies proposing commercial space stations to balance tourism and research may partly be good public relations. Millionaires who travel to space are a big target for criticism of wasteful spending. Even Axiom’s partnership with Mumm to take champagne into space caused a downturn: “Space tourism has hit a new low,” chirp Michael Byers, co-director of the Outer Space Institute at the University of British Columbia, responding to the announcement.

“It is unclear whether the market can support four competitors or two competitors. We don’t really know,” Dittmar said.

However, with the development of commercial space stations to support businesses such as biomedical research, it is easier to rally support for them. The same may be true of giving more countries opportunities to send people into space, although that may come with geopolitical complications. (It would be interesting to see if that would happen with the Saudi astronauts; at the IAC, an attempt by the Saudi government to host the 2025 IAC in Riyadh which seemed to be the hottest candidate faced a backlash from members of the International Astronautical Federation, who chose Sydney instead . , Australia.)

Another reason may be more practical: Companies are unsure where the demand for commercial space stations will be, other than NASA’s stated interest in moving research currently conducted on the International Space Station to such stations, and covering their bases to be ready to support the research. Or tourism as soon as it appears.

During an IAC panel discussion, an Axiom executive made a cautionary note. “I think we’re going to have to get really excited about the trade issues, and I don’t think we’re there at all,” said Marie-Lynn Dittmar, head of government and external relations at Axiom Space.

She said the scale of demand for research, tourism or other applications was uncertain. “It’s unclear if the market can support four competitors or two competitors. We don’t know, really.”

NASA currently supports four teams — Axiom, Blue Origin/Sierra Space, Northrop Grumman, and Voyager — for commercial space station studies or, in Axiom’s case, access to the ISS port to attach commercial modules. Few, though, believe the four will be able to pursue their terminal concepts technically and financially.

“There are going to be some tough choices to be made, and they are going to have to be made sooner than most people are ready to make,” Dittmar said of narrowing the field for space station companies.

However, some hope the four will continue. “I hope there will be enough market for all of us to succeed,” Andre Mitterrand, director of strategy and business development at Northrop Grumman, said during another IAC session. “We’re looking at how to make the pie bigger,” he added. “Otherwise we can kill this market.”

So, perhaps, by the end of the decade, tourists at a commercial space station might be sipping their Mom’s champagne from specially designed mugs while floating by the window, watching the Earth below. On the other hand, researchers may be the ones who break out the champagne to celebrate the completion of a research project at a commercial station. Either way, as people go, champagne will follow.


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