14 January 2000
News - Tourism (Good)
MIR To Be Saved by Private Company
First Ever Space Hotel May Already Be in Orbit
by Patrick Collins
After many months of 'on-again, off-again' rumours that the MIR space station could be maintained in orbit as a private business facility if some tens of millions of dollars of new investment could be raised, it appears that this is about to happen.

On January 13, 2000, the Washington Post reported that the British company Golden Apple has paid US$7 million of what will become US$20 million to establish a joint company to operate MIR commercially.

The story, which also appeared in the Drudge Report on January 12, 2000, added several further details, including that Golden Apple offers the opportunity to be the first tourist in space for a price of US$40 million. This seems a pretty reasonable figure to be remembered forever as the person who opened the REAL space age - that is, when anyone can buy a ticket to space. Thereafter, the price will fall to around US$20 million. According to Drudge, US astronaut John Blaha said, "I would tell anybody it would be the most significant thing they would ever do in their lives".

For various reasons, NASA has been pressing the Russians to de-orbit MIR as soon as possible. Ostensibly, in order to enable the Russians to focus their efforts on keeping their commitments to the International Space Station (ISS) project, this would be not only a waste of an extremely valuable orbital asset but would also be a loss of a priceless piece of humans' heritage. (Imagine in a couple of decades when the original MIR is hanging [or rather, floating] in a corner of a 200-metre-diameter orbiting museum, and guests are queuing to float through it - much as they queue to walk through the Earth-bound Skylab model in the Smithsonian Museum today: They will surely exclaim in real astonishment, "You mean people actually used to live inside this little thing?!")

The ISS is expected to cost US$50 - US$100 billion over its planned 10-year lifetime. If there were commercially valuable research to be done in space, it would clearly make sense to do it for 1/1000 of that cost in the space station that's already up there But from the economic point of view, by far the most important business in space is going to be tourism. And so the Russians stand to earn more profits from operating MIR as a tourist destination than from any other space activities - including their participation in the ISS, which is a government-funded research station.

Golden Apple was also said to be planning to add modules to the station to make it more attractive to commercial users/guests. Mir's long operational life, its robustness in case of accidents, and its ease of repair should encourage other companies to join in and learn that investing in orbital accommodation is not as outlandish or risky as they may think.

Boost for RLV Companies?

Finally, there is hope that the presence of a fascinating historical destination already in orbit will help companies like Rotary Rocket Inc. who are trying to raise the finance needed to complete their piloted orbital vehicle "Roton" (of which the Atmospheric Test Vehicle has made three successful test flights to date, confirming the soundness of using a helicopter-type rotor for controlled landing after re-entry).

The 'default' route to space tourism is through developing a rocket-powered vehicle such as Bristol Spaceplanes' 'Ascender' to provide sub-orbital passenger flights - and then financing an orbital passenger vehicle on the basis of its successfully demonstrating the realism of passenger space travel. The fast track would be for a company like Rotary to go straight to orbit: together with Hotel MIR ('Golden Apple'?) this would open the flood-gates - making even Space Future's target of 1 million passengers in 2020 too conservative!

The public should give the 'Golden Apple' their strongest support in order to pressure politicians to help develop a supportive regime for private space travel - which will greatly enrich the world. And perhaps publicity for MIR could also encourage a few of the 'Internet millionaires' to do something useful with their money - while they still have it.

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Patrick Collins 14 January 2000
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