[This is the scenario I developed under contract to ‘Popular Science’ magazine for a major article in the May 2004 issue. My scenario served as the basis for their own text and illustrations. Somehow my name got left off the credits list.]
It’s a dozen years in the future. The old “Space Race” has been supplanted by a “Space Pace” as different players – national, international, corporate – follow intertwined paths.
The Space Shuttle has been retired, and the first orbital flights of NASA’s Constellation-class “Crew Exploration Vehicle” have occurred. It’s already made two pioneering sorties into lunar orbit and back, and a site near the moon’s south pole has been picked for a base camp and is already being stocked by robot freighters. A small habitable module – named “Lagrange” – has already been sent to the Earth-Moon L2 point, in “halo orbit” above the far side of the moon, to act as an intermittently-occupied basecamp for farther exploring missions.
For the last ten years, the US had been using the ISS for human factors experiments to learn how to handle long interplanetary missions. Some astronauts had spent up to two years straight in orbit, using closed-loop life support systems designed to keep them alive on the way to Mars and back, but those activities had borne fruit and further tests were less useful.
The Euro-Chinese “Ta-Dou” orbital outpost has been operating for several years, with international crews carried on Shenzhou vehicles. After a decade of commercial tourist missions up-and-down into space, the fiercely-competed X2-Prize race for private access to low Earth orbit is nearing completion. To support their own newly-refinanced and expansionist space plans, the Russians had upgraded their new ‘Angara’ family of launch vehicles and had resurrected a 25-year-old concept for the ‘Zarya’ human space vehicle (carrying two pilots and cargo, or up to eight cosmonauts without cargo).
So what was to be done with the ‘International Space Station’? Its immense electrical power generation capabilities, high-volume data links, and extensive collections of scientific instruments begged for further exploitation, and once major assembly had been completed, efficient, economic operations at control centers in Houston and Moscow were possible with small teams of specialists. Crew and cargo transportation via a mix of Russian and European and occasional ‘Constellation’ vehicles proved adequate. Although most science operations were moving to the Euro-Chinese space station and the Lagrange outpost, there was still significant productive research work to be done on ISS – just not enough to justify the cost of the overhead.
Hence the “ISS-Star Corporation” was born. With headquarters in Singepore, this multinational group had purchased the ISS, leased the support services of the teams in Houston and Moscow, and made agreements to make portions of the European and Japanese labs available to scientists brought up aboard commercially-leased Shenzhou and Zarya spacecraft (the US price for Constellation missions proved prohibitive). To foster long-range commercial orbital access, ISS-Corp’s first project was to offer a free 30-day luxury vacation aboard the station to ANYONE who could reach it aboard a privately developed space vehicle.
Most of the ISS was renovated to serve as a luxury orbital hotel. Working science gear was moved into the European and Japanese labs, or into the Russian ‘Service Module’ where the staff would live and regular meals would be served. Two of the Italian-built logistics modules were left permanently attached, to serve as gyms and storerooms. A microwave dish was installed to beam surplus electrical power to customers in 24-hour orbits 20,000 miles overhead.
There are accommodations for eight guests, plus three crew (the captain, the engineer, and the medical officer). Visiting scientists (usually three or four at a time) handle all their own sleeping and eating arrangements in the two active research modules, and rarely interact with the guests except on special tours and demonstrations.
The Russian-built Pirs docking module (with the best all-angle window views) is outfitted as the ‘Honeymoon Orbit Suite”, with luxurious cushions, curtains and tapestries, big binoculars and map folders by the windows, clothing-bags strapped to the walls, perhaps even an unfoldable mirror or three. There is an unfoldable space toilet demurely stowed in one corner.
The two small bent-tapered-cylinder “PMA” units, #1 and #2, attached to the US modules, are each outfitted as 2-person sleeping rooms. They also have cushions, straps, tapestries, the space-toilet, but no windows.
The lowest-class sleeping quarters are one-person accommodations unfolded inside the docked supply spacecraft, the ‘Zarya’ or the ‘Progress’ or the European cargo carrier. These are “bare-bones” accommodations.
The luxury dining area is the cupola and all its windows. The regular buffet is a unit in the Service Module. Meals can also be served in the private rooms.
Other modules are configured for activities. The FGB tunnel is reconfigured as 3-D handball court (players at each end, bounce off any of the four walls of the tunnel). The Quest airlock is reconfigured as sauna, and alternately as a luxury shower/bathroom.
The US Node is reconfigured as gymnasium/dance zone, and the US Lab is reconfigured as special activities area – artistic creativity and handicrafts, earth observation, ‘loop pool’ for swimming. One of the Italian modules is also equipped for human-powered flight (“eagling” – see below).
The station staff is on 90-day tours; guests can option 6-day visits, or a 30-day tour, or even a 60-day stay.
Visiting missions of the Russian ‘Zarya’ transport are launched monthly – cost of each, including launch, is $20 million. The same vehicle in cargo mode provides resupply.
One ‘Zarya’ is always docked for emergency evacuation (lifeboat drill is the first activity for newly-arrived guests).
ISS-Corp’s operations budget includes: Russian MCC paid $100m/yr, US MCC paid $300m/yr (including fabrication of spare parts for maintenance, as required), logistics support: $50m/yr; Launch Support $200m/yr; Misc’l $50m/yr. That comes to an operational expense of $700m/yr.
Every year, 72 ‘tickets’ are sold, averaging at $12m each (more for longer stays). Researchers fly at half price, there may be 16-20 of them per year. Advertising and ‘special services’ (such as visible light shows for earthside parties) brings in another $200 million a year. That’s a projected income of $1,200 million per year. An agreed-on slice of the profit goes to pay off the ISS purchase mortgage.
Guest activities are highly varied and can be stand-alone, team, or ‘high-maintenance’ from on-orbit staff or remotely-monitored.
Viewing the Earth through windows, and personal private activities in bedrooms, are minimally involved with other guests. However, sport activities need to be coordinated.
** “tube-trampoline”, a cylindrical (12-ft diameter, 20 ft long) springy surface inside which you can 'bounce off the walls'. Deployed for use, then folded accordion-like away. Other variations of gymnastics including parallel bars and rotating rings are available for zero-G innovations.
** “bing-bong” (box ping-pong), four ping-pong tables arranged in a rectangle, players at each end hitting ball through the 3-d court. Variation -- in the FGB tunnel, convert all four walls to handball court. Players can either occupy opposite ends, or install end wall and play at same end, or single player can play self.
** “Eagling” ('personal flight') in large cylinder where fast air flow down the cylinder is fed by suction fans and air is rushed back to front of 'wind tunnel' in wall-mounted ducts. Air flow rate is modulated by position of 'flier' -- the closer to the front of the flow, the faster the air flows. As a result, flier -- with leg and arm-mounted ornithopter wings (fold closed on up swing, snap open to catch air on down stroke) -- works as hard or as easy as they like to stay in middle of flow. Walls can display either starry sky or blue, cloudy air scenes, with moving ground scenes along one wall as desired.
** “Space Surfing" -- around edge of 14-ft module -- say, logistics module, fast-moving stream in walled channel, swimmers can enter moving water held in place by centrifugal force.
** "Bobbling" – The water can be reconfigured as 'big bubble' -- 8-10-ft diameter sphere in zero-G, held loosely with surface tension, chemical surfactants, perhaps bio-fibers, that allow person to penetrate into the water, and out again, with minimal splash. Experiment with air bubbles inside the no-buoyancy world. Do not drown.
In addition, special craftwork – set up in smaller modules – can deploy materials for zero-G sculpture (fast-hardening vinyl extruders, say), bottle-blowing with fast-hardening plastic film, create airy filegree structures, rotate with controlled air blasts to induce 'lean' and 'spread' as desired until it hardens, add layers and combine structures, create 'faeiry-castle' artistry impossible on Earth. There would also be other creativity-enhancing tools for artists, musicians, poets, dancers, whatever, along with a full suite of imaging and sound recording devices.
Lastly would be the occasional spacewalk, both simply as a passenger on the tram that runs up and down the long truss, and as a once-per-stay heart-stopping “space bungee” activity where the suited guest is trawled out two miles on a tether for several hours of day-night earth passes with nothing in sight but ground and space (and at night, stars) and the station a small structure no bigger than a desk-top model. Special legal waivers definitely required for this one.
The “ISS-Corp” business would operate on a plan to maintain the population level of guests until cheaper commercial earth-to-orbit transportation became available. With a guaranteed passenger rate and logistics supply, the project would encourage the private development of space access. As needed, additional inflatable habitation modules could be built and launched commercially. Barring a major space debris impact, the ISS-Star hotel (the “OrbiTEL”) could remain in orbit – profitably – for many decades to come.