Visiting restaurants and strolling through gardens aren't unusual vacation activities, but imagine doing them under one-third the force of natural gravity.
That's what Gene Meyers hopes his guests will do at his space hotel of the future: a revolving, Earth-orbiting space station shaped like a giant wheel. And in his vision, visitors will also share only-in-space experiences, like floating outside the station to help the crew make repairs.
Meyers is the president and CEO of Space Island Group, and he's among the handful of pioneers with major financial backing who say that it won't be long before vacationers are packing their bags for space. These companies are not only leading the way in personal space travel, but are in the process of developing the space hotels of the near future.
Space Island Group is developing a stand-alone, orbital space structure that could serve a number of purposes, including a hotel. He anticipates that the hotel will hold 400 guests and 100 crew members.
"We're sticking with technology that has been developed and used," said Meyers, noting that his company expects to use patents and technologies developed by NASA and the U.S. Air Force. Aerospace companies that supply NASA will construct Meyers' project.
He hopes to start building the hotel in space by 2010, and to open it in 2015. He estimates that a one-week trip will cost $200,000, which will include the flight up to the hotel.
If getting to space won't be cheap, neither will building the station. Space Island Group plans to generate $10 billion for the startup through sales of solar power technology to India or China.
Meanwhile, Meyers is dreaming up ways for guests to relax –like zero-gravity suites and opportunities to work in the on-board gardens that produce the food eaten onboard. He also expects the ballroom will prove a popular spot: "I think a lot of people will enjoy dancing under this partial-gravity situation."
Space Island Group has some competition. Bigelow Aerospace of Las Vegas is developing an inflatable earth-orbiting module, which would be able to function as a single hotel suite. Robert Bigelow, owner of the Budget Suites of America hotel chain, is investing $500 million of his own money in the project.
The inflatable space-station-module technology was developed by NASA as part of the TransHab project. The lightweight vehicles launch in a compressed state, allowing for less powerful launch vehicles and more spacious modules. NASA pulled funding on the project before it ever got off the ground; Bigelow bought the exclusive development rights.
The prospect of space-vacation travel has become serious enough that the Rochester Institute of Technology now offers a class in space tourism.
The entrepreneurs have yet to work out all the details of opening space to civilians. Meyers noted the health complications linked to long stays in space — issues that might afflict crew members.
Bone loss can occur after a month; other side effects include space sickness, fluid pressure in the eyeballs and radiation. Risks to pregnant women are also a concern.
And, of course, there's the likelihood that sooner or later — and especially, in the early stages of the technology's testing — something could go tragically wrong.
"There's going to be accidents," affirmed Leonard David, senior space writer for space. com. "Things are going to crash. People are going to get hurt, maybe even killed."
Dealing with the forces it can control, Space Island Group will take precautionary measures. Guests and employees will have to reserve their flights one month in advance, will undergo background checks, and must pass a physical examination by doctors. In addition, each station will have emergency medical facilities onboard.
But first, Space Island Group and Bigelow will have to find passengers with not only strong stomachs, but deep pockets.