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Part 3

Space Tourism

space wheel station
The Space Island Group is designing plans for giant wheeled space stations that would be constructed from existing spaceship parts  
This is Part 3 in a five-part series exploring themes from the classic science fiction film "2001: A Space Odyssey." The Headline News companion series airs December 26-30. Episode guide
Sir Arthur C. Clarke talks about how present reality measures up to his vision of the future (Web cam interview)

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(CNN) -- Gene Meyers wants you ... in space.

The President of Space Island Group sees a day when space flights are routine, where giant space hotels and entertainment centers spin slowly in low Earth orbit, and a week's stay costs about $10,000.

Don't assume this is some far off vision that may or may not occur during your lifetime. Meyers wants to start booking rooms for the year 2007.

The idea of space hotels and passenger space flights are not exactly new. In the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey," the character of Dr. Heywood Floyd flies to an orbiting space station aboard a Pan Am shuttle. The station is called the "Orbiter Hilton." It even has a Howard Johnson's restaurant.

Screenwriters Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke saw a future for space tourism and realized that private enterprise would play a leading role.

How will the Space Island Group put tourists into orbit so quickly and (by today's standards) so cheaply? The company says the key technologies for making its plan work are already in place. Meyers says, "We're taking hardware that's already flown for 20 years and we're simply improving it, modifying it a little bit so it fits into the newer commercial business plan."

CNN's Allard Beutel reports private companies are poised to take over space travel and tourism

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Gene Meyers of Space Island Group comments on future space projects

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Animation of Space Island Group's proposed space station

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For example, consider the space shuttle's external fuel tanks. Those are the large orange cylinders that carry the shuttle into orbit. The tanks eventually separate from the shuttle and fall into the atmosphere to burn up. Meyers wants to leave them in space and convert them into human habitats.

"They're enormous," he says. "Each external tank has roughly one-hundred-thousand feet of interior volume, which is twice the complete volume of the International Space Station."

"You could put the living quarters and the laboratories and the manufacturing facilities from two International Space Stations inside each one of these tanks. And our intention is to join a dozen to a dozen and a half of these tanks in an enormous ring, so the entire complex might have as many as twenty external tanks in it."

Imagine a giant bicycle wheel floating in space with the tanks strung end-to-end to form the rim. Now you have a picture of what Meyers is talking about.

"The wheel shaped station will rotate about once every minute, which means that the suites inside this ring will have the feel of about one-third normal gravity," according to Meyers. "You'll be able to walk around, you'll be able to dine, use the shower and toilets. Those things will work because of the partial gravity. But everything you do will seem exotic because you will weigh one-third as much as you do here on Earth."

For those who want the complete weightlessness experience, special elevators will take you to more external tanks that form the center of the wheel. This area will have no artifical gravity to hold you down.

"Those will be set up as entertainment centers for the guests in the hotel, and one of them might actually be set up as a zero-G arena for zero-G sports activities that would be broadcast down to Earth," Meyers says.

Of course something has to get you there first, and again the Space Island Group is relying heavily on current technology. It plans to carry tourists into space aboard a redesigned space shuttle. These so-called second generation shuttles would have a larger cargo area to hold passenger compartments with enough room for 75 people. Once in orbit, you'd be greeted by a small spacecraft that would grab hold of the compartment, remove it from the cargo hold and take you to the space station.

space station interior design
The station wheel rims could be constructed from external shuttle fuel tanks, allowing for creative internal designs  

The company's goal is to relaunch the shuttles every two weeks. Since it takes months for NASA to turn around a shuttle, how does Meyers expect to do it any faster? He says the current fleet was never really designed for regular commercial use. "That's one of the elements we want to re-engineer out of the program, those very difficult set up times and charges."

"Our goal," says Meyers, "rather than simply having a vehicle that goes up into space and comes back, will be to have a vehicle that goes up and comes back economically, safely, and at a far faster turnaround rate than what NASA has achieved."

All this is going to cost money. By Meyers' estimates, it will cost $10 billion over the first five years. In the early stages, Space Island Group will try to raise money through corporate sponsorships, much like the Olympics. Eventually it plans to lure companies into space with the promise of affordable leases for microgravity research and manufacturing.

Space hotels are only part of the vision. Meyers sees satellite rescue operations, hospitals, laboratories and even factories spinning like giant wheels in the sky.

And perhaps, some day, you'll be there, too.

 Chat schedule:
The following online chats are scheduled in conjunction with the "2001: A Space Prophecy" series (all times Eastern):

  • Thursday, December 28, 2 p.m.: Gene Meyers, president of Space Island Group, will discuss his company's plans for a private space station.
  • Friday, December 29, 2 p.m.: Andrew LePage, physicist and senior scientist of Visidyne Inc., will discuss the search for extraterrestrial life.

Mir company chases space tourists
December 13, 2000
U.S. tourist plans to visit Mir by 2001
June 19, 2000
First privately funded manned space mission blasts off for Mir
April 4, 2000

Space Island Group

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