Space sleepovers more science fiction than fact
Barron Hilton dreamed of space hotels in 1967
(CNN) -- Two years before Neil Armstrong made that historic leap for mankind into the gray dust of the moon in 1969, Barron Hilton was talking about hotels in space.
Barron Hilton -- CEO and president of Hilton Hotel Corp.
In a paper presented to a conference of the American Astronomical Society, the hotelier speculated on an entire chain of orbiting hotels based on a space laboratory concept being studied by what was then the Douglas Aircraft Co.
"These might be like Hilton Inns for short trips in space," Hilton said. "They could accommodate brief stopovers on a continuing journey to the moon or other planets."
Hilton described his ideas at the 1967 conference: "The Orbiter Hilton would be free in space, the Lunar Hilton would be located below the moon's surface and include about 100 guest rooms."
And at the Lunar Hilton -- large, well-equipped rooms, lots of automation, television and views of space, and of course the Galaxy Lounge.
Hilton didn't venture a guess about when the first Lunar Hilton would open, although he did promise that the Hilton family name would be involved.
McDonnell-Douglas eventually got into space with Skylab, but Hilton's only venture beyond the Earth's atmosphere was a fictional one -- Hilton Space Station 5 in the 1968 movie "2001: A Space Odyssey."
It's not really Hilton's fault, however -- space-faring travelers haven't exactly been coming out of the woodwork.
Of course, tourists in space have long been a part of science fiction. Writers like Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, Joanna Russ and Roald Dahl have all written about vacations beyond the pull of Earth's gravity.
While Hilton speculated, people from astronauts to plain old entrepreneurs launched companies hoping to be first in line to sell tickets to space.
But leave it to Russia's struggling space program to be the first to actually take paying customers past the stratosphere.
It could have been much sooner than Californian multimillionaire Dennis Tito in 2001 had the Soviet Union -- already the first to launch a satellite, the first to put a man in orbit, the first to put a woman in orbit, the first to put an unmanned lander down softly on the moon and the first to put an space station in orbit -- not collapsed.
Tito himself was vying to follow Japanese television journalist Tohiro Akiyama and British chemist Helen Sharman to Mir, Russia's second space station.
But Akiyama and Sharman didn't pay their own way -- Japanese television station TBS shelled out $28 million for Akiyama's weeklong stay in 1990, and a British consortium arranged Sharman's 1991 trip after selecting her from a contest that drew 13,000 applicants.
The British group, however, wasn't able to pay up the full amount and the Russians footed the rest of the bill.
Tito, on the other hand, bought his own ticket. And he's not likely to be the last.
No five-star rating
Despite its string of glowing firsts, the Russian space program has had more than its share of setbacks -- including a crew of cosmonauts who perished on the return flight from that first space station, Salyut I.
Two years earlier, of course, was Armstrong's historic walk on the moon well ahead of the Soviets, who have never put a cosmonaut on another celestial body.
By the late 1980s, the Soviet Union and its space program were broke, and the Soviet Union was on the verge of disaster.
Tito's planned trip to Mir fell through when the Soviet Union collapsed, and further plans to send him into space crashed with the space station into the Pacific in March.
But international space station Alpha was already orbiting. The Russians were happy to get $20 million for ferrying the businessman to the station and letting him float around for a week. And they'll likely do it again.
Even though the United States wasn't happy with hosting a tourist on board the station, all 16 nations involved in the station project have agreed to study the possibility of commercial flights. NASA has already published a paper, in 1998, titled "General Public Space Travel and Tourism."
So, space station Alpha won't get a five-star rating, and it "is not the Hilton," as NASA flight director Jeff Hanley said when the first crew went up in November. And Barron Hilton had nothing to do with it.
But it is, technically, the first "travelers' rest" in space, and Dennis Tito is the first to book a room. But he probably shouldn't expect a mint on his pillow.
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