Leaving the planet
Le développement du tourisme spatial de luxe.
C’est la dernière tendance parmi les millionnaires américains : le tourisme spatial. Depuis Richard Branson, fondateur du groupe Virgin, tous les grands noms de la tech se sont lancés dans l’aventure. L’entreprise Axiom Space, nouvelle venue sur ce marché très lucratif, souhaite se démarquer de ses compétiteurs en proposant à ses clients un type de voyage très spécial : le voyage spatial de luxe...
HOUSTON — In an era in which privileged individuals search constantly for the next experience to obsess over and post about on social media, space truly remains the final frontier, a luxury that only the 1 percent of the 1 percent can afford. Brad Pitt and Katy Perry are among those who have reportedly plunked down $250,000 for a ride on one of Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic spaceships, undaunted by a 2014 test flight that crashed and killed one pilot.
2. Now a company called Axiom Space is giving those with piles of money and an adventuresome spirit something new to lust after: the prospect of an eight-day trip to space that is plush, if not entirely comfortable, and with a bit of the luster of NASA as well.
3. Circumambulating his gray carpeted office on a recent Wednesday, Mike Suffredini — NASA veteran, Houston native, and the chief executive of Axiom Space — stopped in front of a cardboard compartment about as big as a telephone booth. “It’s no New York hotel room,” he said with a shrug, as if apologizing for its size. “It pretty much is, actually!” said Gabrielle Rein, Axiom’s marketing director.
LUXURY COMMERCIAL SPACE STATION
4. “It” was an early mock-up of a cabin for a commercial space station, among the first of its kind, that Axiom is building: a mash-up of boutique hotel, adult space camp and NASA-grade research facility designed to hover approximately 250 miles above Earth. Axiom hired Philippe Starck, the French designer who has lent panache to everything from high-end hotel rooms to mass-market baby monitors, to outfit the interior of its cabins. Starck lined the walls with a padded, quilted, cream-colored, suede-like fabric and hundreds of tiny LED lights that glow in varying hues depending on the time of day and where the space station is floating in relation to Earth. “My vision is to create a comfortable egg, friendly, where walls are so soft and in harmony with the movements of the human body in zero gravity,” Starck wrote in an email.
GOING INTO ORBIT
5. At the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Suffredini spent 10 years managing the International Space Station, the hulking, 20-year-old research facility in low Earth orbit. This gives him a certain edge over Branson and Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, who is overseeing Blue Origin. (The majority of Axiom’s 60 employees also hail from NASA.) At least Suffredini thinks so.
6. “The guys who are doing Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic are going to the edge of space — they’re not going into orbit,” he said. “What they’re doing is a cool experience. It gives you about 15 minutes of microgravity, and you see the curvature of the Earth, but you don’t get the same experience that you get from viewing the Earth from above, and spending time reflecting, contemplating.”
7. And, naturally, posting to Instagram. “There will be Wi-Fi,” Suffredini said. “Everybody will be online. They can make phone calls, sleep, look out the window.” Maybe it will be so nice they’ll want to stay there. The Starck-designed station is scheduled to open in 2022, but Axiom says they can start sending curious travelers into orbit as early as 2020. They’ll just have to make do with the comparatively rugged accommodations of the International Space Station, which is working with Axiom.
8. Axiom’s station can house eight passengers, including a professional astronaut. Each will pay $55 million for the adventure, which includes 15 weeks of training, much of it at the Johnson Space Center, a 10-minute drive from Axiom’s headquarters, and possibly a trip on one of Elon Musk’s SpaceX rockets. Three entities have signed up for on-theground training, which starts at $1 million, Suffredini said, though he declined to name them. The inaugural trip will be only $50 million: “It’s a bargain!”
TOUGH CONDITIONS SO FAR
9. To understand the grand scale of Axiom’s plans, it helps to know that astronauts have, thus far, largely been roughing it up there. The Johnson Space Center contains a life-size mock-up of the ISS, whose drab, beige interior is lined with drab, gray handholds to tether down things and people, necessary given the lack of gravity. A tour guide quaint- ly referred to the onboard bathroom as a “potty.” There are no showers.
10. “The few folks that have gone to orbit as tourists, it wasn’t really a luxurious experience, it was kind of like camping," Suffredini said. The Axiom station will still have handholds, but thanks to Starck they will be plated in gold or wrapped in buttery leather, like the steering wheel of a Mercedes. Axiom’s private cabins will have screens for Netflixing and chilling — there’s not a lot to do up there, although going outside to do a spacewalk is a possibility — and there will be a great, glass-walled cupola to gather with travelers and take in a more panoramic view of Earth, perhaps with an adult beverage.
11. Suffredini’s professional life has revolved around space. “I was like everybody who watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon and decided that NASA was cool and wanted to work there,” he said. While he’s overseen many missions, he hasn’t been in orbit and has no plans to see Axiom for himself.
Axiom’s private cabins will have screens for Netflixing and chilling.
Mike Suffredini worked for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, as well as the majority of Axiom’s 60 employees.
Axiom Space founder, Mike Suffredini, left, and designer Philippe Starck.