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Welcome to the Age of Billionaires in Space

September 17, 2021
by Laura Smith
An image of the proposed space hotel Image source: Orbital Assembly

A space hotel for the super rich is on the horizon. But what about the rest of us?

ON A HOT, BRIGHT DAY IN JUNE, a smattering of reporters stood on an industrial lot in Fontana, California. Orbital Assembly, which calls itself “the first large-scale space construction company,” was unveiling DSTAR, its Demonstrator Station Truss Assembly Robot, which would, in theory, build large structures in space. One structure in particular had garnered most of the media attention and was quickly making a name for the company: Orbital Assembly plans to build a luxury space hotel.

Called Voyager Station, it “will be the largest man-made structure in space when complete,” according to the company, and promises amenities such as fine dining, a basketball court, and a movie theater. A rendering of the hotel shows a leggy woman sitting at a bar, cocktail in hand. Another shows a handsome, silver-haired man with his teenage children, all gazing nonchalantly at the planet they’ve left behind.

The company expects to have roughly 300 paying passengers and 100 staff by 2027. Tickets will go for a mere $5 million a pop. This was catnip for outlets like CBS, Yahoo News, and Trevor Noah’s Daily Show. “Wait, did they say there’s going to be a movie theater in space?” Noah quipped. “I guess when you think about it, it kind of makes sense. … It’s like, ‘Wow, the Earth. Wow, the Moon. Want to go watch Lion King?”

Jeff Greenblatt, an environmentalist turned space entrepreneur who earned his Ph.D. in chemistry from Berkeley in 1999, left his environmental work to become Orbital Assembly’s chief visionary officer in 2019. While that may sound like an odd career move, Greenblatt was convinced that humans and/or manufacturing would have to move off-planet in order to lessen the ecological impacts on Earth. He brought his 19-year-old daughter to the DSTAR demonstration in Fontana, where she helped him tighten some of the final bolts.

It wasn’t exactly a Space Odyssey, but it was a milestone nevertheless—one that most in the space tourism sector had never reached.

A month and a half earlier, the team had done an initial test to make sure the technology worked. Someone flipped the switch to start the robot and nothing happened. Luckily, it had been an easy fix, but this time around the company had a crowd. Everyone waited. Once again, a switch was flipped, and over the next 24 minutes, the automated assembly robot moved a six-ton truss across what looked like a giant conveyor belt until there was a steel structure 70 meters long—almost the length of a football field. Orbital Assembly had shown that it could use robotics to move massive amounts of metal and build large structures—on Earth. It wasn’t exactly a Space Odyssey, but it was a milestone nevertheless—one that most in the space tourism sector had never reached. The engineering, the heavy machinery, and the six tons of metal were all a point of pride for a company in an industry full of paper tigers pedaling vaporware. Of course, building structures in space would be an entirely different matter.

Which isn’t to say that space tourism wasn’t already taking off. For a certain elite class of human, it most certainly was. This was the summer of billionaires in space. On July 11, airline magnate Richard Branson embarked on a sub-orbital space flight with his company Virgin Galactic. Nine days later, Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos rocketed to space with his company, Blue Origin, while rumors circulated that Tesla’s Elon Musk was not far behind: the Mars-obsessed Musk reportedly reserved a $250,000 seat on one of Branson’s supersonic space planes.

Orbital Assembly’s Greenblatt saw the spate of private space shots as monumental. “There is a huge paradigm change happening.”

Upon landing back on Earth, Bezos thanked Amazon employees—many of whom make less than $30,000 a year—for funding his ride (“You guys paid for all this.”). Critics shook their heads. Berkeley Professor Robert Reich tweeted that it was “one small step for billionaires” while Peter Ward, the author of The Consequential Frontier, a book about the privatization of space, called it “possibly the most expensive midlife crisis ever.”

But every space industry person I spoke to for this article discussed Musk and Bezos with a kind of sheepish admiration. “[Musk has] basically brought the launch cost down by two-thirds,” said NASA veteran of four space missions and former International Space Station Commander Leroy Chiao ’83. At the same time, Chiao is skeptical of the idea that the enormous price tag will ever be accessible to ordinary earthlings.

Still, Orbital Assembly’s Greenblatt saw the spate of private space shots as monumental. “There is a huge paradigm change happening.”

JEFF GREENBLATT GREW UP IN RURAL Pennsylvania on a working farm that was owned by the boys’ school where his father taught English for 40 years. Greenblatt was a quiet, bookish kid who spent a lot of time in the library reading every science and math book he could get his hands on. But he was also interested in nature, and on starry nights, he would gaze at the sky. “I often looked up and imagined myself out there, among the stars somewhere,” he said. After earning his doctorate at Berkeley, as he was emerging into his scientific career, the news on climate change was growing increasingly dire. He recalls thinking to himself, “Wait, I don’t just want to work in a lab. I want to do something that’s going to make a difference.”

He took a postdoc at Princeton with the Carbon Mitigation Initiative, which was where he began to demonstrate the kind of outside-the-box thinking that would eventually lead to his work in the space industry. “It was actually very easy for me to just imagine a world reinvented, that doesn’t use carbon as an energy source, because I didn’t feel as constrained to what I already knew about how the world worked. I actually had to ask the question like, ‘Why are we so dependent on fossil fuels? Why can’t we just run windmills and solar panels for everything?’” His mentor put his arm around him and said, “Now, how much time do you have?”

In 2014, a friend started sending him articles about Musk and his plans for SpaceX. “I thought, ‘Hold on. What has changed here while I’ve been paying attention to the environment?’”

Greenblatt started spending more time at space conferences and began consulting for space-related companies. While many of those he met were decidedly “out to lunch,” he also found a lot of “brave thinkers” in the industry. “For me, it’s probably one of the most freeing scientific communities I’ve found.”

Then he encountered the team that would become Orbital Assembly. Some of them came out of NASA’s prestigious Jet Propulsion Lab, and they were working with actual hardware. He thought, “These are smart guys. They’ve really thought this through.” He would email back and forth with them every few months and, occasionally, do some calculations for them. Eventually, they asked him to come on board. He chose the title chief visionary officer. His job, as he describes it, is to “think big and outside-the-box, focusing on long-term strategy.”

His vision goes beyond sending one-percenters into orbit. The ecologist in him sees a larger mission. “It’s kind of become an environmental imperative,” he says. “It’s hard sometimes for people to understand that we’re rapidly outstripping the ability of our planet to support the lifestyle and number of people that we have, and that we can’t quickly change that.”

“I think it’s always going to be easier to figure out how to fix the Earth or stay living on the Earth than to go to terraform Mars.” —Chiao

He explains that sometime in the near future, we will want to be—may need to be—“a multi-planet species.” When he first started researching the possibility of off-planet life, he was intrigued by Musk’s suggestion of a Mars colony, but quickly realized that planetary colonies had too many challenges. As Tarek Zohdi, a Berkeley professor of mechanical engineering, pointed out, “the amount of radiation you’ll receive on Mars will basically irradiate you to the point where you’ll have cancer so quickly, it won’t matter what you do.”

Similarly, astronaut Leroy Chiao is skeptical of this idea of humanity becoming a multi-planet species. “I don’t subscribe to that theory,” he says. “I think it’s always going to be easier to figure out how to fix the Earth or stay living on the Earth than to go to terraform Mars.”

But Greenblatt is increasingly convinced that we must plan for life off-Earth and that these colonies must exist in large, rotating space structures. For him and the Orbital Assembly team, the hotel and its billionaires are a sort of headfake, though they prefer the term “milestone.” “We want to make the building of large structures in orbit completely routine and feasible and affordable,” says Greenblatt, “so that we can essentially build a space-based civilization.” The hotel is just the first step.

FOUR DAYS BEFORE BEZOS WAS LAUNCHED into space and five days after Branson had safely returned, I boarded an airplane to Tucson to meet Greenblatt and the rest of the Orbital Assembly team at Spacefest, one of the first big space conferences since the pandemic began. While I was skeptical of the idea of space hotels and contemptuous of the pet projects of billionaires, I was curious nevertheless. A new space race was on, and this time it wasn’t countries but companies duking it out for the chance to plant flags and win “firsts.” The question was, whose ideas were outlandish and whose would be a staple of the future? If the space entrepreneurs were visionaries, I wondered: Did we really want to buy the vision they were peddling?

Tucson looks a great deal like Mars with its sprawling, monochrome desert landscape. Even the highway sound barriers are beige. And like Mars, it appears at first glance to be unfit for human habitation. It is the kind of place where you half expect to find a sun-bleached and scavenged human skeleton on the hiking trails, where the canyons fill with the ominous screams of startled birds and there is always a rattling or rustling just off the path. The slowly boiling hum of the heat is occasionally broken by the sound of fighter jets from the nearby Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. But through a combination of sheer stubbornness and ingenuity, about half a million people call it home.

As their co-panelist, space robotics expert Jeromy Grimmett, said earlier that day, “Space is trying to kill you.”

Tucson was also the inauspicious site of an infamous utopian space venture gone wrong: Biosphere 2 (Biosphere 1 being Earth, of course), the $200 million experiment conducted by a company called Space Biosphere Ventures to build an airtight, entirely self-sustaining ecosystem it hoped to eventually launch into space. The project ended in a spectacular disaster when keystone species began dying and the whole environment was overrun by cockroaches and threatened to collapse. Fearing for their colleagues’ lives, a pair of scientists who had spent two years living in the biosphere went rogue and pulled open doors, breaking their seals, to rescue them. The pair was arrested and charged with burglary and criminal property damage. As post-mortem studies of the project pointed out, the company had spent hundreds of millions of dollars and couldn’t provide what the Earth provides for free. It was a stunning argument for protecting what we have rather than hatching convoluted plans in space. 

Spacefest was taking place at a Marriott resort at the edge of Tucson Mountain Park, a 20,000-acre stretch of desert spotted with saguaro cactuses that is in danger of being overrun by invasive buffelgrass. Impossibly, there is a perfectly green golf course on the premises.

The Orbital Assembly team, which is typically spread across the Western United States, was in high spirits as we stepped outside to talk on one of the resort’s many balconies. Delighted by the landscape, they spent time comparing notes on Gila monsters and discussing the worst kinds of UV rays. Between panels, they had made a connection with a spacesuit manufacturing company, and one of them had just touched a Moon rock. Unlike most of the Spacefest attendees who are here for pleasure, they are here for one reason and one reason alone: to network. They are possessed by the rehearsed optimism of a group of people who are about to embark on another round of fundraising.

Orbital Assembly is betting big on partial gravity. While weightlessness seems appealing at first, Greenblatt explains that it’s both uncomfortable and unhealthy. As their co-panelist, space robotics expert Jeromy Grimmett, said earlier that day, “Space is trying to kill you.”

Greenblatt had previously told me that weightlessness “is fun for a while, but then it becomes a real inconvenience. Nothing stays down. Eating is hard. Personal hygiene becomes a real hassle; it’s not very pleasant. You have trouble with your vision; you get bone and muscle atrophy.”

Berkeley billionaire and pioneering space tourist Charles Simonyi ’72, who twice traveled to the International Space Station, described the uncomfortable sensation of being aware that your skin is a sack that contains floating organs. “In a way, you never rest because you always feel the pressure from the inside of your body on your skin.” And those are the known challenges of a zero-gravity environment. The long-term effects of weightlessness are still being studied.

Greenblatt explained that by making the Voyager hotel spin, everything inside will get pushed to the perimeter so that the outer edges become the floor. At high enough spin rates, this will feel similar enough to Earth’s gravity to make daily life more bearable but will still have a novelty effect because it will be less gravity than we experience on Earth. The renderings for the Voyager Station show this in action: a guest playing basketball leaps through the air to do a slow-motion slam dunk.

It makes you think: What are the billionaires’ trips to space other than safety demonstrations and the realization of childhood dreams, anyway?

At Spacefest, there is a lot of talk about five and ten years out, about what technologies will exist then and how space entrepreneurs can, right now, build with the presumption that those yet-to-exist technologies will come to be. One such assumption is fully reusable space rockets, which will reduce launch costs considerably. And indeed, SpaceX has already gone a long way toward delivering on this dream.

When I ask the Orbital Assembly team what the future of space travel looks like 50 years out, they are confident that partial gravity will play an essential role: “Lots of things spinning in space,” says the CFO, Tim Alatorre. The group discusses how people will need to live in space for years at a time, and not just live, but thrive. There will need to be infrastructure to support the people who are mining asteroids. In keeping with his environmental vision, Greenblatt explains that there is the potential for all heavy manufacturing, and all the pollution it entails, to be moved off-planet. “So that frees up a lot of Earth for productivity and, hopefully, ecosystem restoration.”

“To imagine that we’re going to have millions of people working in space in a decade is fantasy,” Greenblatt had told me in an earlier interview. “But by the end of the century, I don’t think it’s fantasy.”

He said there are moments in technology development when the inventor thinks, “‘I don’t know what the use of this is, but I think it’s interesting.’ Often, things are invented before there’s a good use for it.” Consider the elevator. At the time, there weren’t many buildings tall enough to require one. Elaborately designed “ascending rooms” or “upstairs omnibuses” appeared in the swankiest New York hotels, but people were terrified to use them. Without the safety demonstrations at the 1854 World’s Fair in New York, elevators likely never would have gone mainstream. In time, they were scaled down and made less expensive. Now we get in them without a second thought, and virtually all tall buildings have them. It makes you think: What are the billionaires’ trips to space other than safety demonstrations and the realization of childhood dreams, anyway?

I find the man with the Moon rock. I hold it and can’t help but feel disappointed. The fact of it is amazing, sure—a rock, containing pieces of the Moon!—but it looks like parking lot rubble.

I SPENT THE REST OF THE DAY MILLING ABOUT the vendors’ stations among the aging astronauts and middle-aged men in SpaceX hats. I talk to an astrophotographer from Scottsdale who uses incredibly expensive cameras to take photos of deep space. “Many people think space is black,” his wife tells me. “But it’s not. It’s full of colors more vibrant than you can imagine.” All weekend, I have noticed a little girl in a dress with stars all over it, dragging her bemused father around, pleading with him to hurry to the next talk or event. A man is selling space-themed posters, one of which reads, “The future doesn’t belong to the faint-hearted, it belongs to the brave.” I find the man with the Moon rock. I hold it and can’t help but feel disappointed. The fact of it is amazing, sure—a rock, containing pieces of the Moon!—but it looks like parking lot rubble.

The night before I left Spacefest, I was stopped in the hotel’s lobby by a bellhop. The Marriott in Tucson appears to be exclusively operated by overeager University of Arizona students. “Hey!” the young bellhop calls out. “Hey, are you writing about Orbital Assembly?” I tell him that I am. He looks me firmly in the eyes and says with a hungry confidence, “I want to work for them,” as if saying it will make the dream come true. 

In the airport the next morning, Branson is on the television at my gate. He is so giddy, he is almost levitating as he talks about his sub-orbital space flight. He says he can’t believe it was real, that he is waiting to wake up.

As my plane takes off, the engines groan. The wheels lift off the runway, and we rise into the sky above the orange landscape. There is nothing but scrubland and scarred earth as far as the eye can see. Soon we are in the clouds. It occurs to me that in another time, not all that long ago, this was impossible. 

From the Fall 2021 issue of California.

Laura Smith is deputy editor of California and co-host of the magazine’s podcast, The Edge. Check out episode 12, on space tourism, wherever you get your podcasts. Search: “California The Edge.” 
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