🚀 The US wants to build a fleet of space stations. What will we do with them?
Also: 5 Quick Questions for … economist Nicholas Z. Muller on the environment and economic growth
Item: Hotel giant Hilton has signed on to design astronaut facilities for the private space station Starlab, currently under development by Voyager Space Holdings and Lockheed Martin, the companies told CNBC on Monday. In addition to designing hospitality suites and sleeping arrangements, Hilton will also work with Voyager to examine opportunities for marketing of the space station and astronaut experiences onboard. … Voyager and its operating company Nanoracks are developing the free-flying Starlab space station in partnership with Lockheed Martin. The companies aim to have the first Starlab operational in low Earth orbit as early as 2027 - Michael Sheetz, CNBC, 09/19/2022
My guess: Most Americans are aware that by the end of the next US presidential term — or not long after — there might be multiple private space stations floating in low-Earth orbit. I really doubt there’s much public awareness that NASA is helping fund four such U.S. efforts as the space agency begins to wind down the International Space Station by decade’s end.
In December 2021, NASA announced it had signed agreements to “develop designs of space stations and other commercial destinations in space.” A total of $416 million was awarded to Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin ($130 million), Nanoracks ($160 million), and Northrop Grumman Systems ($126 million). (Voyager Space, mentioned in the item above, is the majority shareholder of XO Markets, whose largest subsidiary is Nanoracks.) Previously, NASA had awarded a $140 million contract to Axiom Space to attach up to three habitable modules to the ISS that can become their own modular space station after the ISS retirement.
Beyond space tourism
There’s much more happening in space than suborbital tourist trips where paying customers and special guests experience of few minutes of zero gravity. (Of course, these are what anti-space politicians obsess about.) Whenever I sense someone giving me an eye-roll over the idea of a vibrant space economy — “What are we going to do up there other than float around a bit?” — I think about those mid-1990s dismissals of the Internet. Perhaps the most infamous of these was the February 1995 essay “Why the Web Won't Be Nirvana” by scientist Clifford Stoll, which was most wrong about e-commerce, including this gem: “Even if there were a trustworthy way to send money over the Internet—which there isn't—the network is missing a most essential ingredient of capitalism: salespeople.” Last check, annual e-commerce sales were about $5.5 trillion globally. So kind of an airball there.
Space entrepreneurs will typically give you much the same answer to such skepticism. “Asking this question is akin to asking in 1995 how the Internet would be used and what is the business model” is what Amir Blachman, chief investment officer of Axiom Space — which holds a contract with NASA to attach a module to the ISS as early as 2024 and was recently selected by NASA to develop a spacesuit to be used on the first Artemis landing mission — told Citigroup analysts back in May.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to Faster, Please! to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.