Why Would Anyone Want to Visit a Space Village Anyway?!

The primary ‘export’ of a Space Village will be tourism. People will buy condos in the Space Village to rent them out to space tourists. But what will attract tourists to the Space Village in the first place?

Lots of things. The Space Village is designed to accommodate the following recreational activities for tourists:

  1. A simulated “mission to Mars” on the Mars-gravity level. Because the Space Village has differing levels of gravity, tourists can pretend to travel to a Mars base and perhaps have a day-long challenging mission there. It will feel like Mars because the gravity level will  be identical to Martian gravity. Obviously it will be way cheaper and less dangerous than actually going to Mars because it will be a lot closer. Think of it like a mini-Mars theme park.
Astronaut_working_on_Mars
Instead of a one-way trip to the real thing, come to the Space Village and spend a day on a simulated Mars.
  1. A simulated “mission to the Moon.” Same thing as above, but on a simulated Moon.
  2. Zero-gravity play time, both wet and dry. The center of the Space Village will host a long (probably 40 meters long and 10 meters in diameter), tube-shaped gymnasium that lacks gravity. This space can be flooded with water to create spherical zero-gravity pools and at other times it can be dried out for dancing, sports and theatrical performances.
  3. “Day trips” to other orbits for views of other parts of the Earth. Because the Space Village will be in an equatorial orbit it will never pass over some of the most interesting sites from space e.g. New York City, the Giza Pyramids, the Himalayas, etc. To get around this I propose the Space Village host small spacecraft that, on a regularly scheduled basis, will fly to other orbits and allow tourists to see parts of the world from other orbits. The spacecraft can have snacks aboard and will be an adventure in and of itself.
  4. “Fly a ‘star-fighter'” One could fly a drone through an obstacle course visible from the Space Village and destroy simulated targets. Just like in your favorite sci-fi combat space opera.
  5. Then, all the usual stuff you might find on a cruise ship: casino, gym, observation areas, etc. Except there might be a zero-gravity version of each type. Also, the crew can give tours of the mechanical spaces and farms, etc. and explain how the place operates.

All of these activities could be operated as concessions or they could be operated by the Space Village Company itself.  But the point is, having such a large, permanent, robust facility will allow for a great number of ambitious space tourism activities that in turn will attract a lot of visitors.

And all this ignores that even though tourism will be the primary export for the Space Village it will not be the only export. Having dozens of highly trained people in space will attract all sorts of other business to the Space Village: satellite repair and assembly, pharmaceutical research and maybe even really far out stuff like raw materials processing and refining.

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FAQ About the Space Village Concept

I recently pitched the Space Village Company to a friend of mine in the commercial space world. He had a lot of very basic but very good questions. Here are the answers to his questions, plus a few more he didn’t ask:

What are the dimensions of the first Space Village? How big is it?
A cylinder 112 meters in diameter and 56 meters in length.
There will be ten concentric cylinder decks. Most decks will be spaced about 5 meters apart except for the inner most decks. The gravity at the outermost cylinder (deck 1) is equivalent to Earth gravity (1g). Gravity decreases the closer one moves to the center of the Village. Deck 8 has Martian gravity, Deck 9 has lunar gravity and Deck 10 is basically a big gymnasium-sized room with zero gravity in the center.
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I’m planning for an atrium that cuts through the residential and green space decks (2 through 6) to give it some more airiness.
How many people will it support? 
The first Space Village will have a capacity for 500 human beings.
Roughly 230 of them will be ‘crew’ necessary to maintain the facility. The remainder can be revenue-producing occupants. Maybe tourists, researchers, manufacturers, hotel operators, etc.
The 230 number is derived from research into the cruise ship industry. The average crew-to-passenger ratio on cruise ships is 46%.
How much will it cost to build the first space village?
$1.5 billion. At 17 metric tons per person, the entire structure will mass 8500 metric tons.  At $70/kg to LEO, launch costs alone will be $595 million. Round up to $600 million and double it to account for construction/fit-out/start-up costs. Then add a 25% contingency factor.
R&D costs (as well as about a million others costs, like financing) are not included in this estimate because it’s assumed the R&D will be paid for separately by commercializing R&D as its created as well as other sources (e.g. govt partners and perhaps other strategic partners).
The $70/kg price is derived from SpaceX ITS launch estimates. SpaceX estimated it will send one kilogram to the surface of Mars for $140. I took that number and cut it in half to estimate the cost to LEO.
Obviously this is all very hand-wavey. On the other hand…SpaceX, Blue Origin, the Chinese and a few others all seem deadly serious about dramatically lowering the cost to orbit. Price to orbit will continue to fall. If or when it hits $70/kg, I couldn’t say.
The 17 ton per person number is derived from Al Globus’ research. That number as well as more detail into all these numbers, will be chronicled in our upcoming book. Stay tuned.
How will you make money? What is the value proposition?
Free space settlement will be a real estate business. The Space Village Company will be both a developer (selling condominium units inside the settlement) and a landlord (renting space it keeps). At first the Space Village Company will maintain the common areas (as well as common services like life support, waste recycling, port management, thermal control, orientation, etc) but eventually something like a condominium association or a business improvement district may take over these essential duties.
The Space Village Company may also retain the earlier revenue streams (that supported R&D before the settlement is built) or it may spin them off to focus solely on construction of settlements.
How might an investor make outsize returns?
Because the Space Village Company will be a real estate business it will have the ability to pre-sell residential living units (and commercial offices/workshops) at a drastic discount to early, accredited investors. Or, similarly, it might pre-sell a portion of time – say a week’s vacation – at a drastic discount to an early adopter. Let’s see how this might work.
If transportation to space gets really inexpensive – e.g. about $70/kg to LEO or “full fare economy,” as Elon Musk predicts – then there will be demand from hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people to travel to the Space Village. The Space Village Company will sell at least 250 single-occupancy living units or ‘space condos’ (or some combination of single and multiple occupancy units with a total capacity of 250 people). The Company will retain ownership of 20 single-occupancy space condos and rent them out to provide an ongoing revenue stream for the Company itself.
If the total cost to construct the Space Village is $1.5B, that means each of those 250 units must sell for at least $6M for the Space Village Company to break even on construction costs. Note that this does not include sales of commercial workshop space or other areas on the structure that could also generate revenue. For now I focus just on the residential units.
If a buyer pays $6M for a single occupancy space condo their monthly mortgage amount (at 7% for 30 years) would be about $39,000. Assuming a $30,000/month condo association fee (to pay for life support, etc.) that’s $69,000/month carrying cost for the living unit. Note: The condo association fee is a rough guess at this point. Also, I don’t expect early adopters to get a mortgage; they’ll probably be uber-rich folks who pay cash. I just use the mortgage numbers as way to illustrate what the cost might be.
The owners of these units could rent them out to recoup their investment. It currently costs about $45,000 to climb Mount Everest. This seems like a comparable price point for a week’s vacation in space. If lodging for the space vacation costs $39,000, then a person “airbnbing” their space condo could make $156,000/month revenue or 87,000/month profit. If the total cost to the traveler is $45,000 then their ticket to travel back and forth to LEO is $6000, which is pretty close to $70/kg or Musk’s “full fare economy.”
Where do the outsize returns come in? The Space Village Company could pre-sell a number of space condos, or chunks of time in space condos retained by the Space Village Company, at a steep discount. Once the Space Village is up and running these discounted products could later be sold at a high profit. For instance, instead of selling a space condo for $6M, early on the Space Village Company might sell it for $6000. Once the Space Village is built and operating, the investor would then sell their $6000 investment for $6M, making a 1000% return. Or, instead of selling a week in space for $39,000, the Space Village Company might sell it for $100. The investor could then sell that week in space later on for the regular price of $39,000, setting herself up for a potential 390% return.
Obviously, these early adopters will be taking an enormous risk. It would probably be best to limit those allowed to invest to accredited investors who understand the challenge and are willing to take a risk on an untested idea. Building in space is extremely difficult. Nothing on the scale of the Space Village has ever been built in orbit. In fact, there is no guarantee at all that transportation costs to orbit will fall to the point that the Space Village will become feasible. Therefore, it is very possible an early investor will lose their money.  Caveat emptor.
Another thing: this discounting process will not raise really big dollars. It will probably only raise hundreds of thousands to a few million dollars, depending on how many space condos and chunks of time the Company is willing to sell at a discount early on. The Space Village Company will need traditional angel/VC/equity/debt investments, as well as government contracts/partnerships, to be truly successful.
The Space Village Company will also likely develop new technologies and other intellectual property that may become quite valuable on their own.

Motion Sickness and the Space Village Biz Plan

Building a village in space will require lots of R&D. We can attempt to commercialize the results of the R&D to generate revenue to sustain the business until space transportation makes direct construction of the space village feasible. An earlier post discussed indoor agriculture as one potential revenue stream. That, frankly, is the best idea I’ve had so far: it doesn’t require huge amounts of capex, there is a growing market for it, problems to solve, and I’ve already started working with someone in the field who has IP and some experience.

A second potential revenue stream involves an innovative way to treat motion sickness. Almost everyone suffers from motion sickness from time to time. It can be a real problem for regular business travelers or tourists preparing for a big trip (say, on a cruise ship). The solution most doctors recommend is either avoid the trigger (impossible in the examples above), take some medicine, or use a placebo device (like some kind of pill or some weird charm bracelet). These treatments may provide, at best, questionable and temporary relief. Turns out, though, there is a better solution.

motion-sickness-simulator2
Motion sickness training underway.

I’m working on a book about space settlement with Al Globus (to be released in Spring 2018) and in it we discuss research by Dr. Pat Cowings at NASA’s Ames Research Center. In the mid-1990s Dr. Cowings and William Toscano developed autogenic feedback training exercises (AFTE) to control and minimize the impacts of motion sickness for Space Shuttle crews. Subjects underwent twelve 30-minute training sessions. The training involved visual and auditory  feedback as well as and verbal instructions from the trainer. The training sessions were in a rotating chair to induce a feeling of motion sickness. After these sessions – six hours in total – subjects reported far less severe motion sickness symptoms. These benefits were retained for three years after the training.  See the full NASA report here.

 

If these results could be repeated in the general population and the facility somehow commercialized and distributed to medical facilities (maybe even inside drug stores? or on cruise ships?) throughout the world, it could be a viable, and profitable, way to treat motion sickness.

There are even simpler potential treatments. Research in England hints that mild electrical impulses applied to the temple and scalp areas may reduce or eliminate motion sickness. This could be another way to commercialize motion sickness treatments.

What does all this have to do with space villages? Space villages will rotate to simulate

Faster Rotation Means Smaller Settlement Diameter
The smaller the settlement, the faster it must rotate to provide Earth-like gravity. 

the feeling of gravity. Unlike space stations, space villages will provide artificial gravity to aid in sanitation, agriculture and every day life. They will do this via rotation. The space village will be shaped like a donut or a cylinder and it will rotate around its central axis. As a result of centrifugal force caused by rotation, villagers and their stuff will ‘stick’ to the interior wall of the cylinder. Notably there will still be an area of zero gravity at the center of the settlement.

 

The trick, however, is that to make a space village reasonably small (not kilometers wide) and have Earth-like gravity (1g), it must rotate fairly fast – about 4 to 6 revolutions per minute. For comparison, a typical fairgrounds carousel rotates at about 4.3 revolutions per minute. Such a high rate of rotation might cause motion sickness in some villagers, at least for a few days.  While they will almost certainly adapt (per this other set of NASA research) it would be nice to at least offer future villagers a way to mitigate or eliminate any possible motion sickness. Hence the focus on motion sickness treatment.

Is NASA pushing back against the Senate Launch System?

NASA’s Institute for Advanced Concepts recently released a study that concluded, essentially, that NASA won’t get back to the Moon any time soon using traditional cost-plus contracting arrangements. This is a not-so-subtle poke at the Space Launch System (SLS).

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SLS is sometimes referred to as the ‘Senate’ Launch System because the US Congress inserted itself into the design process for the rocket. SLS is required to use outdated technology in order to maintain jobs (and voters) at existing suppliers. Additionally, the rocket is being built using cost-plus contracting which basically means the taxpayers foot the bill for mistakes made by the contractor. Therefore it’s not surprising that the first SLS flight has been delayed repeatedly. If a contractor can charge the government for delays, why wouldn’t it extend the work as long as possible? In fact, one can argue this is the rational thing for the contractor to do in order to maximize revenues and shareholder returns. And the US Congress seems content to allow this to go on, as long as voters remain employed building a rocket to nowhere.

The problem, of course, is that a rocket to nowhere will never get the US (back) to the Moon. Nevermind Mars, the asteroids or building space villages. The good people at NASA realize this. While they love a big rocket (who doesn’t?) and yearn for the halcyon days of Apollo (and the supersized budgets that came along with it) they see what the private sector is doing and are beginning to hedge their bets. Extremely capable companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, Astrobotic and ULA have big plans to build truly commercial infrastructure in orbit. They have the money to do it and they have a winning track record.

Indeed, NASA’s own Kennedy Space Center released another report in 2017 comparing recent space station cargo delivery contracts with older Space Shuttle cargo delivery services. Surprise, surprise: NASA concluded that the commercial fixed-price contracts were far cheaper and just as effective as the cost-plus Shuttle services.

In light of these commercial successes, NASA is at risk of being left behind, saddled by Congress with a rocket to nowhere. Unable or unwilling to come out and say so directly, some parts of NASA are beginning to push back by releasing reports stating that public-private partnerships and fixed-price contracting are the way to get America back to the Moon, and beyond. Expect to see more of this when Jim Bridenstine, a strong proponent of commercial space, is confirmed as the new NASA administrator.

The question becomes, however, what will all those workers (voters) do if SLS is cancelled? You don’t get votes by putting people out of work. So Congress won’t agree to cancel SLS until a viable alternative presents itself. Future posts will explore what NASA and their traditional contractors could work on instead of SLS in order to bring the benefits of space to the United States and the entire world.

Step 1 in the Space Village Biz Plan

Building the first human village in space will require extensive research and development. These R&D activities can be commercialized and provide streams of revenue to sustain the business until in-space construction of the village becomes feasible. That is, when human space transportation is cheap, safe and frequent.

The first R&D activity to be considered is indoor agriculture. High-intensity indoor

Screen Shot 2018-01-01 at 10.36.05 AM
Source: Agrilyst

agriculture is a fast-growing industry that generates more revenue per acre than conventional farming. Specifically, “indoor horticulture is about 4000 times more productive than conventional outdoor commodity farming.” However, indoor agriculture still requires lots of inputs: fertilizer, water and lots of lots of electricity.  According to the report linked above, indoor farmers cite “keeping operating costs down” as their number one operational challenge. This represents an opportunity. If the Space Village Company (we’ll have to think of a better name eventually!) can offer products and services to help indoor farmers better control their operating costs it may see a steady stream of revenue.

Why would a Space Village Company perform R&D on indoor agriculture? Because villagers in space need to eat! And drink and breathe… What I mean is that because of their very large sizes and populations space villages cannot rely on traditional aerospace life support to sustain themselves. Today and in the past space stations relied exclusively on mechanical systems to clean the air and water. And all the food was and is shipped up on rockets, which is very expensive. Plus the food is not very good. Space villages will need to use self-regenerating biological infrastructure to provide robust, high-capacity life support systems as well as provide enough tasty food for the villagers to eat.

By improving on todays indoor agriculture technology and refining it for use in a space village, the Space Village Company will develop goods and services that can then be cycled back into the terrestrial indoor agriculture market to reduce operating costs for indoor farmers.

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Credit: Bryce Meyer

I’ve already started working with Bryce Meyer and his remarkable four-module space farm architecture to advance this idea. He’s already tested components of the farm at a workbench scale and the initial results are promising. Portions of his architecture could be used as more efficient CO2 generators in indoor farms, or as stand-alone production modules themselves (e.g. for algae production or aquaculture – see the nearby illustration of the aquaponics module). My goal in 2018 is to work with Bryce and others to obtain some grant funding or perhaps even private investment monies to construct an end-to-end demonstration farm using all four modules.

 

Space Village Biz Plan, While-U-Wait

It would be silly to begin construction on a space village today because of the high cost of space transportation. The cost to access space is just too high for both construction and regular back-and-forth travel.  Until space travel improves, this will remain true for all but the most lucrative in-space human activities.

GenesisI
Bigelow Aerospace launched their Genesis 1 commercial space station module in 2006. It has never been visited by a human crew.

This is why even very modest commercial space station proposals (even smaller than the International Space Station, with just five or six people aboard) have been stalled for years despite having proven construction methods. The best space station business will never work if you can’t get to your facility cheaply, safely and on a regular basis.

The good news is that there is plenty to do while humanity waits for the cost of space travel to fall (and it almost certainly will). Assembly of very large pressure vessels, closed-cycle life support and determining optimal gravity environments are just three major challenges that must be solved before a space village becomes economically feasible.

More good news: money can be made while solving these problems. This money can then be used to finance the construction of the space village once the transportation problem is solved. In fact, we don’t even have to go to space to make money.

The technology development challenges posed by space village construction are opportunities to solve other non-space related problems here on Earth. Thus, a dual-use technology commercialization program is proposed: the products and services developed under this business plan to solve space village problems can also be successfully marketed to solve problems on Earth.

– Closed-cycle agriculture

– Rotation tolerance training

Robotic assembly of large, simple structures

For example, closed-cycle agriculture required for space settlement will benefit the (fast-growing) terrestrial indoor agriculture industry. Rotation tolerance training useful for space settlement could reduce or eliminate nausea in those who suffer from motion sickness. Large-scale robotics construction in orbit will surely have benefits for various terrestrial industries like construction and manufacturing. These are just three ideas. There may be more. And this plan hopes to figure out what they are.

 

Transportation is Key and the Lock is Turning

Space settlements will follow the same rules of economics and logistics that terrestrial settlements follow: in order to be successful they must generate and transfer value. People only settle down in a certain place if they can thrive there. And people can only thrive if they can exchange goods and information easily with other people.  In short, before you can build cities, you have to build roads (hat tip to Cake, great band).

We will discuss how settlements will generate value in another post. This post will discuss the roads part: space transportation.  Because it’s hard to build a city you can’t get to.

In late 2017, transportation to space sucks. It’s infrequent, unsafe and way, way too expensive to build a space settlement. The poor state of space transportation is a big reason why our most important space station – the International Space Station – cost almost $100 billion to build. And that thing only holds seven people, not a very impressive population. If space settlement is ever going to happen transportation has to be much cheaper, safer and more frequent.

The good news is that space transportation seems to be improving. The price to send both people and cargo to orbit is falling.

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Price/cost to send one kilogram of cargo to Low Earth Orbit (LEO), in 2017 USD. Bottom two rows are not yet real. See here for source information.

 

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Price/cost to send one person to orbit, 2017 USD. Shuttle, CST-100, Dragon 2 all assume 7 seats. Bottom three rows are not yet real. See here for source information.

If Elon Musk has his way with his BFR super-rocket, the cost will fall even further (bottom rows in the charts above). The way Musk and SpaceX achieve such low costs is through very high launch cadences. So not only will the price go down but, presumably launch frequency will go up as well. And, as anyone knows, the more you do something, the better you get at it so reliability will improve as well (although people may die before we get to airline-like levels of safety).

But Elon Musk is not the only wild-eyed billionaire with plans to improve space transportation. In fact, there are a bunch*:

Billionaire

Quote

Achievements to date (2017)

Paul Allen “I think it’s going to be great if people can buy a ticket to fly up and see black sky and the stars.” Built largest-ever airplane to air-launch rockets to any orbit at any time, increases flexibility to access space
Jeff Bezos “Our ultimate vision is millions of people living and working in space” Suborbital rocket reusability, autonomous “robot” rocketships, rocket engine development
Robert Bigelow [We’re planning for] “…a permanent settlement on the lunar surface.” Inflatable commercial space station modules
Richard Branson “…we’re going to start a whole new era of sending people into space.” Crewed commercial launches to suborbital space
Elon Musk [Becoming] “a space-bearing civilization and a multi-planetary species…is the right way to go.” Orbital rocket reusability, autonomous docking and reentry, lowered price to orbit by $hundreds/kilogram

Since so many billionaires are so committed to opening up the cosmos to humanity, it is inevitable that space transportation will greatly improve in the coming years. When exactly and whether it will improve enough to enable settlement remains to be seen, but I’m cautiously optimistic. You don’t drop a billion dollars a year on something if you’re not serious about it.


*This chart is an excerpt from the upcoming Space Settlement Book. The source information for these quotes and information will be in that book.