25 December 1998
News - Habitat (Good)
Space station commercialisation on the agenda
Watch out for the "T Word"
by Patrick Collins
NASA has published a draft plan for using the International Space Station (ISS) "...to establish the foundation for a market-place... for space products and services in low-Earth orbit, where both demand and supply are dominated by the private sector."

Initially the range of activities being considered is restricted to such activities as materials science, remote sensing and education, and to privatising operations such as flight control and logistics. However NASA is also said to be considering other ideas such as sponsorship and advertising opportunities, selling imagery and flying commercial memorabilia to and from ISS for later sale. NASA wants to "...initiate a set of pathfinder business opportunities that can achieve profitable operations over the long run without public subsidies..." and to "...employ these businesses to break down market barriers.... and open the path for economic expansion..." according to Aviation Week (November 30).

Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, Chairman of the House Science Committee's Space & Aeronautics Subcommittee, has applauded this initiative and gone further still, saying "At long last, there are people in NASA who are trying to open up the space station to a broad cross-section of the American people: from educators to entrepreneurs, physicists to pharmaceutical manufacturers, and technologists to tourists" ( Space News, December 7).

Whether tourists will really be able to visit ISS remains unclear today (although the Russian partners are rumoured to have retained the right to this source of income). NASA probably fears that taxpayers may get sore if, having shelled out $50 billion for ISS, it is then used as a private hotel by rich tourists. That would be an understandable reaction - and it adds to the case that if anyone is to get to visit the station for fun, they should be chosen by lottery - such as Buzz Aldrin's "ShareSpace" organisation, or some other means of sharing the possibility out.

However, selling ISS's services to the highest bidder would recover the largest amount of money for taxpayers. And although reserving the station for "serious" research may be popular with those scientists and companies who get to use it at heavily subsidized prices, it is not likely to be the most economically beneficial way of using it. That will be to use it for tourism industry research.

"Hotelier in Space"?
Space Future's favourite idea - and recommendation to NASA - is to invite a hotelier to travel on the space shuttle to the proto-space station. Just by spending a few days in zero gravity on such a trip, an experienced but innovative and ambitious hotelier could learn more of commercial value for the future of space activities than anyone else.

Such an experience would be continuously stimulating for a hotelier trying to envision the future of tourism in Earth orbit. They'd be sure to fill several notebooks with ideas - about what's needed, what's irritating, what's neat, what's fun and so on - through all phases of a space tourist's trip.

Having a professional hotelier thinking through what will be required - for everything from the entrance, the hotel front, guests' rooms, lounges, dining facilities, toilets, washing facilities, windows, bars, zero-G "play-rooms", kitchens, laundry, staff rooms and many other details - will be of enormous value in helping to catch the interest and attention of the hotel industry. As a global industry with huge resources, hotel companies could play a major role in bringing orbital accommodation to reality - once they understand its possibilities. But "one of their own" will ultimately have far more credibility for them than anyone else.

The "Hotelier in Space" plan will no doubt be dismissed by many people as not being a "serious" use of ISS. However, tourism is going to become economically the most important activity in orbit - as has been acknowledged by NASA itself in its 1998 report "General public space travel and tourism" and in a report published by the AIAA.

Consequently, if the space station is to be used as effectively as possible to contribute to economic growth, to earn a return on taxpayers' investment in space, and to benefit taxpayers directly by learning how to provide the services that they are known to want, then a "Hotelier in Space" program will be the best possible use of the space station.

We're likely to hear more of the "T Word" in this context in 1999.
Source: Aviation Week & Space Technology, November 30;
Space News, December 7.

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Patrick Collins 25 December 1998
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