In 1967, Barron Hilton, the future head of Hilton Hotels Corp., turned up at an American Astronautical Society meeting devoted to “outer space tourism.” The first moon landing was still two years out, but Hilton wasn't going to be late to the next big travel market. At the conference, he laid out plans for Earth-orbiting Hiltons and lunar hotels, complete with Galaxy Lounges where guests might “enjoy a martini and the stars.”
Alas, humans would have to wait decades for an outer-space outpost, and the one they got, the International Space Station, wasn't built for private occupation, much less luxury travel. But now, as the ISS nears the end of its useful life, some entrepreneurs are revisiting Hilton’s vision — and even thinking bigger.
The American ambition to commercialize space is almost as old as the urge to explore it. In 1962, NASA launched Telstar 1, the world’s first privately financed satellite (paid for by AT&T). Hours after launch, it relayed the first live trans-Atlantic television pictures, opening the way for today's multibillion-dollar communication-satellite industry.
But actual space stations that could host human visitors turned out to be a far greater challenge. Although Soviet and American scientists launched competing designs for such a facility in the 1970s, these were more akin to floating tin cans than Hilton’s vacation bungalows. Yet NASA was lobbying for something much more ambitious: a crewed orbital station that could serve as a laboratory, factory and waypoint for travel to the moon and Mars.
The ISS, announced in 1984, seemed to fit the bill. Like many government projects with multiple stakeholders, however, it ran persistently over-budget and over-deadline. Its first launch didn’t get off the ground until 1998. Total costs over the three decades to 2015 are thought to have exceeded $150 billion, giving the ISS a decent claim to being the most expensive thing ever built. For that kind of money, Americans rightly expected the ISS to get a lot done. Yet the facility has been badly underused for most of its history, thanks to both chronic mismanagement and the high cost of delivering people and equipment to space.
Starting in 2005, NASA hit on a new strategy for addressing the latter problem. It signed agreements with three private space companies to deliver cargo and crew to the station, in the hopes of both driving down costs and encouraging a commercial space industry to develop. NASA would act as an adviser and investor, and select the most promising design to replace the soon-to-be-retired Space Shuttle.
It was a long-shot bet that little-known companies such as SpaceX could do better than traditional aerospace contractors. And it was a huge success: Sixteen years later, the cost of launching people and gear to the ISS has fallen dramatically, and commercial space is booming. Last year, Estee Lauder Cos. arranged for face cream to be photographed on the station. This year, tourists will arrive for a holiday via a SpaceX rocket (at $55 million per ticket) and Tom Cruise will film scenes for an upcoming movie.
But NASA’s vision extends well beyond such one-offs. In 2020, the agency contracted with Axiom Space Inc. to attach modules (with Philippe Starck-designed interiors) to the ISS that will break off and form a commercial station that will include residential quarters as well as a lab and manufacturing facility. In March, it announced that it will fund up to four other companies to develop competing concepts, using a similar model to the one that led to SpaceX’s success. Many details remain to be worked out, including what exactly to do with the ISS. But a sustainable commercial outpost in low-Earth orbit has a lot to recommend it. NASA would merely have to be a customer rather than an owner-operator, thus saving money for taxpayers or for other space priorities. Companies could use the new platform to conduct microgravity experiments, pharmaceutical research, materials-science testing and more. As costs decline, there’s good reason to think that they’ll come up with entirely novel uses for it.
Of course, no one should expect orbiting Hiltons just yet. But the dream of commercializing space is no longer a moonshot.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Adam Minter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade” and 'Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale.'