This floating spaceport in Japan could bring space travel to the city
Cylindrical steel and glass towers protrude through solar panels on the vast circular roof of the futuristic, four-story Spaceport City.
The spaceport rises from a floating island, with the skyscrapers of an imagined Japanese metropolis in the background. It's designed to launch tourists on day trips to space, where they will be able to see the building's huge roof -- as well as glimpse the curvature of the Earth and experience zero gravity.
If that sounds like a vision of the future, that's because it is. But Noiz Architects -- who designed the concept in collaboration with communications firm Dentsu, designers Canaria, and non-profit Spaceport Japan -- hopes that the coming years will see a new generation of spaceports constructed as part of the urban landscape.
The spaceport will do much more than offer adventurous tourists the trip of a lifetime. It's a day trip destination in itself, with lifestyle and education facilities designed to help earthbound visitors become "more familiar with space" says Urszula Kuczma, project manager at Noiz Architects.
The mixed-use space includes research and business facilities, an education academy, shops, a hotel, an astronaut-food restaurant, a 4D IMAX movie theatre, an art museum, a gym, an aquarium and a disco -- all space-themed, of course.
To make the spaceport accessible, Noiz Architects' design incorporates public transport with a network of bridges that carry electric cars and autonomous trains, seamlessly integrating the floating island with the city, says Kuczma. The idea, she says, is to stimulate economic opportunities, while inspiring people to explore the possibilities of technology and the wonders of space.
Day trips to space
Unlike the conventional vertical rocket launchers most of us associate with space travel, Spaceport City is designed for suborbital spaceships that look more like planes and take off horizontally.
Commercial suborbital spaceflights are not yet available, but companies including Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic are testing suborbital spacecrafts for space tourism. Virgin Galactic is leading the way in the development of horizontal-launch spacecraft -- the type that Spaceport City is designed for. The company has flown crewed test flights and has already signed up over 600 passengers for the yet unscheduled $250,000-per-seat, 90-minute spaceflight, which it hopes to launch as early as next year.
The company says its spacecraft will fly at least 50 miles (80 kilometers) above Earth, and travelers will be able to leave their seats for a few minutes to experience zero-gravity.
While the spaceflight will take less than two hours, those hoping to shoot for the stars will undergo three days of training before they take off, says Virgin Galactic.
Noiz Architects' plans for Spaceport City include facilities to help space tourists get prepared, says Kuczma. Space travel can be physically and mentally challenging, she says, so health check-ups in the medical clinic and training at the gym or space academy may be part of pre-flight preparations.
Location, location, location
Spaceport City is not the first urban spaceport project. In Houston, the fourth largest city in the US and the home of NASA's astronaut program, work is underway to transform Ellington Airport into a commercial spaceport, and Colorado Air and Space Port (CASP) is just a 30-minute drive from downtown Denver.
These spaceports have been located near cities to attract space-related businesses and space travelers -- once commercial flights are available.
Spaceport City is designed to showcase the benefits of urban spaceports, to get city dwellers on board with having a spaceport on their doorstep, says Hidetaka Aoki, director of Spaceport Japan.
Resistance from concerned residents has made some spaceport projects in other countries difficult, he says. However, urban spaceports could enable "point-to-point spaceflight" such as flying from Hong Kong to Los Angeles in an hour, says Aoki.
This kind of spaceflight is still decades off, but Spaceport Japan wants conceptual projects like Spaceport City to lay the groundwork in changing perceptions and "educating" the public about "potential business," says Aoki.
Whether elements of Noiz Architects' design will make it into spaceports of the future remains to be seen -- but the project starts a conversation about what space travel could be like.
Kuczma hopes it will give "people a peek and get them primed for the concept of space as part of the contemporary landscape."
Correction: An earlier version of this story identified Tokyo Bay as the concept location for Spaceport City. This has been changed to reflect new information from Spaceport Japan.