29 January 2004
- Habitat (None)
A Room with a View
An interview with Dr. Patrick Collins
by G B Leatherwood
By G.B. Leatherwood

A recent television program on Home & Garden TV (Sunday, January 25, 2004, 5:00 p.m.) devoted a show, “Space Pads,” to the impact of the last thirty years of space activities. The prospects for space tourism were given five minutes and included a number of possible configurations for space habitats. We discussed this, and the problems must be hurdled before we leap into full-fledged tourist adventures, with Dr. Patrick Collins, Professor of Economics at Azabu University, Japan, a longtime space tourism activist and analyst, and frequent contributor to Space Future Journal.

Space Future Journal (SFJ): Dr. Collins, this television show leaned toward that idea that we humans might have a long wait before enjoying our room with a heavenly view.

Dr. Collins (PC): Thank you for giving me this opportunity to comment on this program. I’m looking forward to seeing whom the consultants were, and especially what was included from National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA.) We know that NASA has not exactly been supportive of the possibilities of private enterprise fueling the space tourism industry, even though it is the only business that holds real expectations of substantial profit.

It’s strangely gullible behavior of TV companies to just quote NASA-funded views without any debate.

SFJ: Sure. First, there are the expectations built up over the years we've been watching TV and movies, most significantly Star Trek. We've become accustomed to nice, neat, clean, orderly, spacious surroundings. When we compare those images with pictures on board the International Space Station ( ISS) we see clutter like clothes, socks, clip boards, and cameras floating around, with Post It notes stuck on any available surface.

PC: Any facility built and utilized while using Expendable Launch Vehicles ( ELV) is doomed to be hopeless because of the cost constraint. This forces planners to cut corners on things such as workable storage space. On top of that, ISS is a busy laboratory, full of complex, experimental equipment and related supplies. A hotel room, the kind built for tourists, is completely different—as you will appreciate from your own experience.

SFJ: What about eating? Eating is messy business in space.

PC: Yes—in the middle of a lab, when everyone's in a hurry. But for guests who are in orbit for a weekend, eating or anything else in zero-G isn't a continual irritant preventing you getting your work done—it's unique fun, the very reason for going to space. The "difficulties" of eating will be as much a part of this fun as every other activity. Plus there will be all sorts of aids and things to help guests—like fly-swats wrapped in cotton to mop up drops of soup or juice that fly around, and so on.

SFJ: The toilet, well, the training it takes to use it is vital. Mom, Dad, and the two little ones had better pay close attention or have very large bladders!

PC: Obviously this will be part of guests' pre-flight training. (The space shuttle's toilet is said to be a poorer design than Mir's: more complex and less reliable.) But they're not complicated in principle—there's a belt to hold you on the seat and a current of air to take the waste matter "down." It's complete nonsense for astronauts to try to pretend that you need a Ph.D. to use one!

SFJ: Let’s talk about the noise. I didn't realize this until just recently, but one major problem that surfaced unexpectedly on longer ISS stays was the noise. The commentator pointed out that because the ISS is a closed environment, there is no place for the noise to go. Fans, fluids circulating in the pipes, voices, rattling, and banging of equipment, etc., create a very noisy environment that cannot be ignored and doesn't go away. Efforts have been made to provide more sound-deadening material, but it's still a problem.

PC: Again, ISS is a laboratory—and so is the space shuttle. In a dedicated "hotel" there will be much less equipment and therefore less noise. There will be air-conditioning, water trickling (In Japan this noise is considered better than silence!), and occasional bumps—very much like a cruise ship. Small ships are relatively noisier than larger ones, so later hotels will be better than earlier ones, but they'll be considerably quieter than airliners, for example. Civil engineers and aircraft engineers have an industry's worth of experience with sound dampening.

SFJ: Then the privacy issue is still with us. For short stays this isn't much to worry about, but a couple we know who took long trips in their RV with their labrador retriever put it this way: "After a few days the RV got smaller and smaller and the dog got bigger and bigger!" Team members who have stayed in the Mars Society's habitats have underscored this by saying that they treasured even a curtain that could be pulled across their sleeping area for just a tiny bit of privacy. Even little things like how a person sniffles or clears their throat can become infuriating over time.

PC: Once there are passenger space vehicles, with the result of the possibility of large numbers of guests, hotels will be designed that do not have "minimal possible space/person.” At the very least, guests will have separate rooms—which has never yet been the case in government space stations.

SFJ: Then there's food. Great improvements have been made, but it is well known that the astro/cosmonauts spend a lot of time choosing foods for their entire stay, and food specialists spend a lot of time trying to fulfill the requests, like caviar for the Russians, for example. How will this be handled for tourist flights? Airline flight meals have improved greatly in spite of the late show jokes, but then we may have maybe one meal on a long flight and only snacks on some shorter ones.

PC: In the early days we're talking mainly about short stays of two to three days by millions of people, rather than longer stays by a few. With several arrivals and departures per day at a hotel, fresh foods and so on are not a problem in any way. On the contrary, once we get a chef in orbit there's going to be a continual stream of new creations of "zero-G cuisine.” Everyone loves cooking—think of all the cooking shows on TV—and everything possible in zero-G will be a whole new world.

SFJ: That’s funny—I love to cook and have even written a kitchen column, but I never thought of it that way! But it seems like our expectations may provide more challenges for space tourism than we might have thought. The technology isn't the problem. As usual, we are. The show pointed out the huge differences between a suborbital and an orbital flight and even more enormous differences when considering interplanetary journeys. Once again, not the technology, but making the trip enjoyable, is the greatest challenge.

PC: Yes, sub-orbital flights are very short—but they offer many unique experiences. Market research (paid for by NASA) shows they could become very popular, and if operated like airlines they could become cheap enough—say less than $10,000/passenger—millions are likely to go. But rather than take its own advice, NASA has not developed short-term passenger space travel. Instead it has distracted the public with massive disposable launch vehicles used only by a select few.

SFJ: So if NASA does not develop passenger space travel, why can’t private companies?

PC: It’s because NASA has the vast resource of America’s taxpaying dollars.

• If private space tourism ventures had just 1/10,000 of NASA’s budget—$1.5 million/year, we could get a flood of excellent studies done that would demonstrate that in reality each of these factors will pose no problem whatever.

• If private space tourism ventures had just 1/1,000 of NASA’s budget—$15 million/year—we could build engineering models of all the components of a space hotel.

• If private space tourism ventures had just 1% of NASA’s budget—$150 million/year—we could build a space hotel flight model.

• And if private space tourism ventures had just 10% of NASA’s budget we could do the whole thing: develop passenger vehicles, set up space lines, and grow all the way to millions of orbital passengers/year and lunar tourism.

The reason space tourism has not become a full-fledged reality is the economically disastrous, self-interested way in which government space agencies spend our money. Governments have specifically refused funds to the only activity in space that offers any prospect of an economic payoff.

SFJ: Well, Dr. Collins, it appears that there is plenty to think about before we accept what we see on television; even the documentaries need to be questioned, especially when it comes to something as imaginative and complex as space tourism. Thank you so much for these insights.

PC: You’re quite welcome. I appreciate the opportunity to share my views. Actually, I'll settle for the lunar surface, myself!
Share |
G B Leatherwood 29 January 2004
Please send comments, critiques and queries to feedback@spacefuture.com.
All material copyright Space Future Consulting except as noted.