Lea­ving the pla­net

Le dé­ve­lop­pe­ment du tou­risme spa­tial de luxe.

Vocable (Anglais) - - Édito / Sommaire -

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.

THE COST

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.

(NASA/SI­PA)

Mike Suf­fre­di­ni wor­ked for the Na­tio­nal Ae­ro­nau­tics and Space Ad­mi­nis­tra­tion, as well as the ma­jo­ri­ty of Axiom’s 60 em­ployees.

(Todd Spoth/The New York Times)

Axiom Space foun­der, Mike Suf­fre­di­ni, left, and de­si­gner Phi­lippe Starck.

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