Is space tourism really just around the corner?

The announcement of the first “space hotel” in low Earth orbit has fired up the imaginations of would be space tourists. The Aurora Station, planned for launch by space startup Orion Span, is planned for launch in 2021 for a 2022 open, offering 12 days at 320 km above Earth for the low, low price of $US9.5 million.

Despite this exciting announcement, how close are we really to the human dream of room service in zero G? 

A lifetime of watching Skywalkers and Kirks and so forth zip about in space has give us the impression that space travel is about as risky as getting on a bus. However, there are risks inherent to space with which the industry is only now starting to grapple – especially their lawyers and insurers.

Many of the technical problems have been solved, such as the existence of reuseable launch vehicles, but perhaps the biggest problem with space travel – as opposed to bus travel – is that there’s nobody to ask for help if things go wrong. This is a major risk even for trained astronauts who have gamed out contingencies, and thus an even greater one for civilians. This is why guests will precede their 12 day stay on Aurora Station with a three month training program. 

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And since private individuals will traditionally accept more risk than a government will be prepared to shoulder, there are well-founded concerns about safety in an increasingly privatised space industry.  What will the industry look like as it matures, most likely with a handful of very large players?

One expected limit on space tourism is that the sorts of older people that can typically afford expensive and exotic holidays are not necessarily going to be permitted to do so, due to health concerns. Space tourists will need to be in rude health in order to qualify for tickets. 

In a 2014 piece for Reuters Health, Dr. Tarah Castleberry, assistant professor of aerospace medicine at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston described the conditions that might see someone denied a berth: “We don’t have a specific list of conditions that would be disqualifying, but certainly uncontrolled medical problems (whether it’s hypertension or heart disease or lung disease, or many other conditions), would most likely cause concern and result in disqualification.” 

And then there are the additional health risks posed by space itself: increased exposure to radiation, loss of bone and muscle mass, blood pressure changes and even optical changes (which, incidentally, seem connected with fluid around the brain rather than the eyeball itself). 

All of these are concerns NASA are attempting to mitigate in plans for a manned Mars mission, and while most space tourists wouldn’t be in space for long enough for long-term problems to manifest, they would be issues for workers in the space industry. 

And as far as recreational space tourism goes, your space honeymoon might not be quite the sexual thrill ride science fiction has promised. Acrobatic difficulties aside, lower blood pressure and lack of gravity mean that normal anatomical functions may be impaired.

In other words: put down an $80,000 deposit on Aurora if you want – the operators claim four months’ worth of prospective guests already have – but keep in mind the large array of regulatory and biological wrinkles to be ironed out before you can book that orbital getaway you’ve been hankering after.

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