With the successful launch and docking of its Crew Dragon spacecraft under its belt – although it still has to stick the landing – SpaceX could soon be launching humans to a variety of orbital destinations, including space hotels.
This first flight had no crew on board, with the company hoping to launch its first two astronauts into space this summer. Beyond that, however, there are a number of exciting destinations that the spacecraft could travel to.
While Crew Dragon is contracted to launch six NASA crews to the International Space Station (ISS), those will not be its only flights. This is a commercial vehicle, and commercial customers will be able to pay for flights in the near-future, with up to seven seats per flight available.
“Once Dragon is in regular operation, I think we will seek commercial customers,” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said in a press conference after the Crew Dragon launch.
Companies are already developing space hotels that could be visited by Crew Dragon. One of those is Nevada-based Bigelow Aerospace, who attached a prototype habitat to the ISS in 2016. Last year, the company said it planned to build on this demonstration, and launch the first components of a space hotel in 2021.
It is developing a habitat known as the B330, which will have 330 cubic meters of interior space – a third that of the ISS. In 2021, it hopes to launch two of these habitats into space on the United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rockets.
“These single structures that house humans on a permanent basis will be the largest, most complex structures ever known as stations for human use in space,” the company said in a statement in 2018.
The B330 is designed to function as a space hotel of sorts, alongside scientific research that will take place on board. It’s thought that each habitat will have space for up to six people, which could include paying space tourists and researchers.
How will people reach this space station? SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, or perhaps Boeing’s Starliner, seems like the safest bet. Only two other vehicles in operation are capable of taking humans to orbit, Russia’s Soyuz capsule and China’s Shenzhou capsule, but it seems unlikely they would be used by Bigelow.
This isn’t the only company hoping to build a space hotel in orbit. Texas-based Axiom space also has its eye on developing an orbital outpost, known as the Axiom Space Station. While details are few and far between at the moment, the company says it wants to “make living and working in space commonplace”.
NanoRacks, a private company from Texas that has had years of success running experiments and providing equipment on the ISS, also has plans for a private space station. Called Independence-1, it is looking at ways to turn spent rockets into orbital outposts that could be serviced by Crew Dragon.
And let’s not forget the ISS of course, which is arguably a space hotel itself. Seven space tourists have paid to go to the ISS on Russia’s Soyuz rocket, at about $20 million each. While SpaceX will fly up to four NASA astronauts on its six contracted flights, there’s no reason it couldn’t take other paying customers on flights too.
This first flight still needs to successfully return to Earth on Friday March 8, but if all goes to plan the doors it could open are thrilling. If SpaceX can make human spaceflight as routine as it has made satellite launches and rocket landings, then we could truly be in for a rather fascinating next few years.
Crew Dragon, and Boeing’s upcoming Starliner vehicle too, will make regular human access to space easier than ever before. Some of these space hotels may well never see the light of day, but those that do will have courier services ready and waiting to take their guests into orbit.