September 30, 2022

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Travel Finishes First

On another planet: designing commercial space travel

7 min read

Largely the domain of the extremely wealthy, the interiors of spacecraft reflect the changing aspirations of their passengers

When Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson landed in the New Mexico desert, after his first trip to outer space, he told a group of reporters and friends that he was optimistic about the future. ‘Imagine a world where people of all ages, all backgrounds, from anywhere, of any gender, or any ethnicity, have equal access to space,’ he said. ‘And they will in turn, I think, inspire us back here on Earth.’

Almost a year later, booking a trip to take the same ride, 50 miles up to the edge of Earth’s atmosphere in Virgin Galactic’s spaceplane, would cost US$450,000. And that number is near the low end for private spaceflight tickets. An eight-day commercial flight to the International Space Station, launched in April 2022, cost around US$55 million per seat for the four Axiom Space astronauts on board Elon Musk-owned SpaceX’s Dragon capsule. While public pricing for Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital hops to space and back have yet to be released, one of the first spots fetched US$28 million at auction in 2021. Blue Origin expects to eventually get the price down to below a million US dollars, but even then it’s clear that Branson’s imaginary world is still distant. 

Author Frank White coined a phrase, ‘the overview effect’, to describe the transcendent feeling of unity and fragility supposed to be experienced by those who go into space and look back on Earth. This feeling, White says, should be something that everyone has access to, and he is in favour of making space travel a basic human right. But at these prices, not everyone has equal access to space yet. 

‘More people may get to go to space, but they will bring along their professional aspirations and class signifiers with them’

Historically, the ability to go to space was closely associated with class and prestige, and there are few signs that this correlation will change soon. More people may get to go to space, but they will bring along their professional aspirations and class signifiers with them. Some hints about how the demographics of space travel might change can be found in the shifts in the design of space vehicles themselves. In their form and function, these spaces reflect the needs and desires of their passengers, their inspirations and aspirations.

The first astronauts and cosmonauts in the 1960s were highly trained military men like Yuri Gagarin and John Glenn. Canonically possessing The Right Stuff, they were an elite whose accomplishments gave them celebrity status back home. But their trips were not luxury junkets. Early space capsules were close, cramped quarters. Travellers remained strapped into their seats for most of the duration. These spaceships were one-room affairs, with nowhere to go but out of the hatch for a brief spacewalk. Hardship and discomfort was part of the journey – and part of the heroic story of the trip.

In the Soviet Union during the early 1960s, rocket scientists realised that they needed to design a new kind of space in space. The Soyuz capsule, then on the drawing boards, would be a vehicle for long trips, more demanding than the missions lasting only a few days that previous spacecraft had enabled. To make those journeys more comfortable and productive, the Soyuz had a new addition: an ‘orbital module’ that would be like a home office in space, partly for relaxation during off hours, and partly for work while in orbit. This configuration, the Soviet engineers hoped, would help keep the crew comfortable for an eventual long journey to the Moon, a round trip that would take almost a week.

In 1957, Galina Balashova became a senior architect at OKB-1, the USSR’s space programme design studio. She designed the Soyuz series of spacecraft in 1964, which have been in use since their creation, as well as the Salyut (1971) and Mir (1986) space stations. Colour‑coded floors and ceilings – green floor, grey ceilings, yellow walls – meant that astronauts would not become disoriented when floating in the zero-gravity environment. Balashova retired with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991

Credit:Galina Balashova

Yet Sergei Korolev, the director of the programme, was frustrated with the way his engineers were laying out this space: it was too cluttered to be properly usable. Asking around for someone better, he eventually invited Galina Balashova, who was designing the buildings and campus for the space agency, to try her hand at organising this room. She became the world’s first space architect, tucking the piping and instruments into a clean workbench console at one end of the capsule, and putting equipment storage under a low divan couch at the other end. Balashova finished by giving everything the clean modern lines of art deco styling, and even proposed hanging a small watercolour landscape painting on the spaceship’s wall, to remind the cosmonauts of home. If the earliest astronauts were test subjects – ‘spam in a can’ – putting up with deprivations in pursuit of raw knowledge and risk, this second generation of space travellers were workers, performing experiments and tasks and living their more ordinary lives in orbit.

Parallels can be drawn with other forms of travel, going back to the early days of long-haul train and aeroplane trips. A century ago, aviation achievements were dominated by adventurers, entrepreneurs and daredevils, making their way in craft that were sometimes ramshackle experiments. Eventually, the Charles Lindberghs and Howard Hughes of the world gave way to slightly more ordinary upper-middle-class people taking business trips or holidays. In long-distance train travel, once the province of explorers and prospectors, the hardships of cross-continent journeys in North America were softened in the late 19th century by the mass-produced middle-class luxury of the Pullman sleeper cars.

In the 1940s and ’50s, long trips on airliners became bourgeois affairs in which passengers in tailored suits and dresses could expect to be pampered, wined and dined. This kind of travel had a heyday in which the word ‘jetsetter’ described a type of person that the ‘business class’ aspired to be. From the perspective of an age in which we wear elastic-waisted tracksuits and soft shoes for the security line, hoping for rare treats like salted pretzels and reliable WiFi, this era seems a lost and distant past. 

‘During the mission, engineers discovered that a tube from the capsule’s toilet had broken, and was leaking urine behind the carbon fibre panels’

The first astronauts were scientists and military men, and now we have entrepreneurs, wealthy joyriders, and luxury tourists; we may soon see an age in which a trip to space will be, for some, a commute. In late 2021, NASA announced a series of grants for companies to develop private space stations as successors to the publicly run International Space Station (ISS). One front-running proposal led by Blue Origin is the Orbital Reef, billed as a ‘mixed-use business park’ in space, hosting science, research, tourism and other labour. As Captain Kirk explains, when asked where he’s from in Star Trek IV, ‘I’m from Iowa, I only work in outer space.’

As the international Artemis programme is moving forward, due to send astronauts on a multi-day ride to the Moon in the spacious Orion crew module, longer trips – for both work and play – are here to stay. Artemis will also likely rely on SpaceX’s new Starship: still under development, Starship is the world’s largest rocket, and could also be the roomiest spacecraft yet to fly. Given SpaceX’s fondness for space tourism dollars, Starship will almost certainly take private paying customers on board eventually. Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, who visited the ISS in 2021, has already given SpaceX a deposit for a lunar ticket. 

SpaceX launched their first all-private crew in the autumn of 2021, with the Inspiration4 mission, paid for by billionaire defence contractor Jared Isaacman. Isaacman and his crewmates spent almost three days living in the sleek, streamlined interior of the Dragon capsule. The capsule’s internal body panels take inspiration from automotive design, maybe from the work of another company owned by Musk, Tesla. These moulded panels serve the same function as the divan and console designed by Balashova: they hide the prolific functional apparatus that keeps the spacecraft running. During the mission, however, that was not all that was hidden. SpaceX engineers discovered that a tube from the capsule’s toilet had broken at some point during the trip, leaking urine behind the carbon fibre panels.

‘SpaceX’s rockets are sending more than just messages. Each launch of their Dragon capsule emits as much CO2 as more than 300 transatlantic flights.’

In the immediate term, customers will continue to pay well for the privilege of taking the trip, and they will expect to be comfortable and pampered for the price. Broken toilets and cramped quarters will not be tolerated for long. Form matters here, almost as much as function. The styling of Tesla’s vehicles flatters the company’s customer base, reassuring the car’s driver and everyone around them that this is a high value artefact from the future, and that the object’s owner has both the wisdom to purchase for electric efficiency and the taste to make that decision look cool. The clean lines of SpaceX’s Dragon and Starship vehicles do the same. The Tesla might project an image of a sleek sustainable future out into the world, but SpaceX’s rockets are sending more than just messages. Each launch of their Dragon capsule emits as much CO2 as more than 300 transatlantic flights.

Musk, Branson and Bezos are rival billionaires when it comes to technology and marketing, but they do often take a moment to congratulate one another on their success in ‘helping to make space more accessible for all’. Existing inequalities on Earth are thrown into sharp focus when we see who gets to pay to leave the planet. Making space more accessible to more people will come with its own price. These men – and other private spaceflight entrepreneurs yet to come – will absolutely be ready and willing to sell tickets for that inspiration and aspiration at every level.

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