Aesthetics (and Finances) Matter As Space Tourism Takes A Flying Leap

From steampunk and to Stanley Kubrick’s interpretation of Arthur C. Clarke, the images of space, future, and esoteric  technology have stimulated consumers of speculative fiction. But those images have also influenced actual scientists, tech developers, and planners. The aesthetics of fiction and the implementation of pragmatists are  mutually dependent.

About a year ago, a cluster of articles appeared across various media touting the new aesthetics of space travel. The story was that the utilitarian and spartan designs of Cold War U.S. and Soviet space capsules was giving way to an awareness that space travel would also benefit from comfort and pleasant surroundings. The privatization of space travel promises to change the old aesthetic paradigm, or non-paradigm, into a realm where visual appeal synthesizes with technological function.

This may be a manifestation of critical mass for private space tech corporations. The field of space technology is becoming more crowded in general, and more commercial. SpaceX has its hand in both. Last month SpaceX launched several Starlink satellites, the fifth time they’d done so. There are now over 300 Starlinks in orbit (heavy satellite traffic and the crisis of space debris are subjects for another post). SpaceX eventually wants 42 thousand Starlinks in orbit, a network of internet facilitators that SpaceX envisions filling in all the gaps in the world—which is a laudable goal in the abstract.

Now imagine, rising above all those orbiting machines, a hotel room. We’ve come a long way from the old paradigm, where NASA pushed back against the idea of space tourism on the then-under-construction ISS. The Russians were far more enthusiastic about the tourism, and the money-making, than the U.S. was back then.

The shift from bare functionality to imaginative aesthetics reminds me of the movie The Right Stuff (I never read the book), both the spartan and uncomfortable experience of being an astronaut in general, and the scene where the astronauts threaten to go on strike, demanding that there be a window in the craft. The field of space tourism, in particular, is one where aesthetics plays a strong role not just in running alongside functionality, but in some ways determining how to think about what is functional. Space tourism companies are even recruiting well-known earthbound artists and designers to guide this progress. Mary Meisenzahl at Business Insider writes that “Space exploration company Axiom is launching a space tourism program to fly tourists to the International Space Station” and is designing hotel rooms for what will eventually be a space resort independent of the ISS. For this purpose, Axiom, working with NASA, “enlisted 71-year-old French designer Philippe Starck to design interiors for these visits, which are planned to start in 2024. Starck has a history in all aspects of unusual design, from hotels to yachts to an individual wind turbine.”

The designs are striking: A giant window observatory where passengers can float and look “down” at the earth, or in multiple other directions. The “modules” or guest rooms appear asymmetrically octagonal (some sides bigger than others). They have plush, firm, pillow-like tiles to comically bump into. Starck talks like an Andy Warholesque artist, saying that the overall design approach comes from “a fetal universe.” The multidimensionality of the design is an explicit rejection of an up-down world.

Currently, the plan is for the modules to serve a dual purpose: for the sake of everyday space business and international coordination, the facilities will house astronauts from countries that are not ISS members. But the more exciting part is the tourists, who will pay at least $35,000 to visit. And importantly, the visitors will have WiFi up there.

Re-enter SpaceX, which is providing prototype tourism packages with Axiom Space which start at prices much higher than $35,000. The cost of each of the three prototype tourist packages currently up for sale (one seat has already been purchased) is $55 million. For that price, the tourist travelers (who have to train extensively and pass a variety of physical endurance and health tests in case things get all Sandra Bullock up there) will get to “break the world altitude record for private citizen spaceflight.”

Business Insider loves the aesthetics and the excitement of space tourism—they have been running stories on it over the past few months like it’s their job. And they love the vision—they have run a couple of stories that are just annotated photos. The ideas are all exciting: inflatable rooms, a promise of space Quidditch matches and multiple sunsets every day. Designers speak of a kind of hyper-Disneyworld concept. The renderings of what space hotel exteriors will look like is mind-blowing, like the Von Braun Station, a rotating wheel with several chambers and four large “spokes” into the center. Arthur C. Clarke would be envious.

The ultimate aesthetic experience (because nothing beats natural beauty) will probably be found in a space tourism mission SpaceX announced two years ago: taking a passenger around the Moon. According to Sarag Marquart at Futurism, there are currently two alternatives for going to the moon as a treat. SpaceX offered the opportunity to two billionaires at somewhere between $51 and 81 million dollars. Space Adventures charges $150 million per seat, in a Russian craft, and then a ten-day stay at the ISS.

This brings up a lot of uncomfortable sociological questions, and political questions, of course. To circle back to the theme of this post, what are the aesthetics, who will paint the picture, of a burning, resource-extracted, toxic planet earth, with a series of beautiful spaceships launching upward, filled with billionaires? That will have to be the subject of another post.

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