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Opinion The rich are planning to leave this wretched planet

HOUSTON — In an era in which privileged individuals search constantly for the next experience to obsess over and post about on social media, space truly remains the final frontier, a luxury that only the 1 percent of the 1 percent can afford.

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The rich are planning to leave this wretched planet play

The rich are planning to leave this wretched planet

(NY Times)

Now a company called Axiom Space is giving those with piles of money and an adventuresome spirit something new to lust after:

The prospect of an eight-day trip to space that is plush, if not entirely comfortable, and with a bit of the luster of NASA as well.

Circumambulating his gray carpeted office on a recent Wednesday, Mike Suffredini — NASA veteran, Houston native, and the chief executive of Axiom Space — stopped in front of a cardboard compartment about as big as a telephone booth.

“It’s no New York hotel room,” he said with a shrug, as if apologizing for its size.

“It pretty much is, actually!” said Gabrielle Rein, Axiom’s marketing director.

“It” was an early mock-up of a cabin for a commercial space station, among the first of its kind, that Axiom is building: a mash-up of boutique hotel, adult space camp and NASA-grade research facility designed to hover approximately 250 miles above Earth.

Axiom hired Philippe Starck, the French designer who has lent panache to everything from high-end hotel rooms to mass-market baby monitors, to outfit the interior of its cabins.

Starck lined the walls with a padded, quilted, cream-colored, suede-like fabric and hundreds of tiny LED lights that glow in varying hues depending on the time of day and where the space station is floating in relation to Earth.

“My vision is to create a comfortable egg, friendly, where walls are so soft and in harmony with the movements of the human body in zero gravity,” Starck wrote in an email, calling his intended effect “a first approach to infinity. The traveler should physically and mentally feel his or her action of floating in the universe.”

Brace for the rise of the cosmos-scenti.

At the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Suffredini spent 10 years managing the International Space Station, the hulking, 20-year-old research facility in low Earth orbit.

This gives him a certain edge over Branson and Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, who is overseeing Blue Origin. (The majority of Axiom’s 60 employees also hail from NASA.) At least Suffredini thinks so.

“The guys who are doing Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic are going to the edge of space — they’re not going into orbit,” he said. “What they’re doing is a cool experience. It gives you about 15 minutes of microgravity, and you see the curvature of the Earth, but you don’t get the same experience that you get from viewing the Earth from above, and spending time reflecting, contemplating.”

And, naturally, posting to Instagram.

“There will be Wi-Fi,” Suffredini said. “Everybody will be online. They can make phone calls, sleep, look out the window.”

Maybe it will be so nice they’ll want to stay there.

The Starck-designed station is scheduled to open in 2022, but Axiom says they can start sending curious travelers into orbit as early as 2020. They’ll just have to make do with the comparatively rugged accommodations of the International Space Station, which is working with Axiom and other commercial space station outfits.

Axiom’s station can house eight passengers, including a professional astronaut. Each will pay $55 million for the adventure, which includes 15 weeks of training, much of it at the Johnson Space Center, a 10-minute drive from Axiom’s headquarters, and possibly a trip on one of Elon Musk’s SpaceX rockets. Three entities have signed up for on-the-ground training, which starts at $1 million, Suffredini said, though he declined to name them. The inaugural trip will be only $50 million: “It’s a bargain!”

“The lion’s share of the cost comes from the flight up and down,” he went on. “Rocket rides are expensive. You know people” — meaning competitors — “don’t know what they’re talking about if they’re quoting prices substantially less than what we’re stating.” (Aurora Station, a luxury space hotel being built by Orion Span, another Houston-based aerospace company, announced in April that it would charge $9.5 million per person for a 12-day trip, but did not mention the cost of the rocket ride there and back.)

Phil Larson, a former space policy adviser to President Barack Obama who also worked for SpaceX, doesn’t expect travel prices to drop drastically in the next few years. “These habitat and outpost companies are great, but we need to solve the launch cost and transportation problem,” Larson said. “It’s like the biggest elephant in the room nobody talks about.”

The barriers to entry, beyond cost? Being 21 or older — there’s no age cap — and passing a medical exam, before the rest of training begins, as well as “The Right Stuff"-like tests of mind and mettle, like a spin in a human centrifuge (even the YouTube videos are hard to stomach). “Not only do you experience the Gs, you get put into a can that’s really — I mean, if you’re going to be a little claustrophobic, this is where you’re going to feel it,” Suffredini said. “About half the people that fly get sick for the first two or three days. Going with us for eight days gives you a chance to get over that. If you don’t get sick, you have all this time!”

Axiom guests will be required to wear a NASA-grade spacesuit for the rocket ride to and from the station. (Features include a fiberglass torso and a drink tube. Also, a diaper.) Years after Pierre Cardin, Paco Rabanne and Andre Courrèges envisioned space-age fashion, Axiom is in talks with a high-end European fashion house it declined to name about designing leisure suits for travelers once they dock. “They will be tailored to each person and can be customized with their own logo, if they want,” Rein said. “It’s a very special keepsake and part of their luxury experience.”

To understand the grand scale of Axiom’s plans, it helps to know that astronauts have, thus far, largely been roughing it up there. The Johnson Space Center contains a life-size mock-up of the ISS, whose drab, beige interior is lined with drab, gray handholds to tether down things and people, necessary given the lack of gravity. A tour guide quaintly referred to the onboard bathroom as a “potty.” There are no showers.

“The few folks that have gone to orbit as tourists, it wasn’t really a luxurious experience, it was kind of like camping," Suffredini said. The Axiom station will still have handholds, but thanks to Starck (whom Suffredini hadn’t heard of before Axiom’s branding consultant suggested they hire him) they will be plated in gold or wrapped in buttery leather, like the steering wheel of a Mercedes.

Axiom’s private cabins will have screens for Netflixing and chilling — there’s not a lot to do up there, although going outside to do a spacewalk is a possibility — and there will be a great, glass-walled cupola to gather with travelers and take in a more panoramic view of Earth, perhaps with an adult beverage.

“Wine and cocktails work well,” said Michael Baine, Axiom’s chief engineer. “Beer and carbonated beverages do not. You don’t have the gravity to separate the carbon dioxide in your stomach so it causes a lot of bloating.”

You’ll want to pack deodorant. “There’s a hygiene compartment where you do kind of a sponge bath,” Suffredini said.

Fond of folksy sayings (he referred to wine as “fruit of the vine”) and thorough explanations, Suffredini, who is 59, retired from NASA in 2015 with the intent of starting a commercial space venture. Soon after leaving, he became the president of the commercial space division of the engineering firm Stinger Ghaffarian Technologies, and in 2016, began Axiom, which has raised more than $10 million in funding so far.

“We’ve met their engineers, we’ve seen their plans, we hired domain experts that grilled them and did a deeper dive,” said Lisa Rich, a founder of Hemisphere Ventures and an early Axiom investor. “Everything came up with ‘This is a big go sign, we’ve got to get in on this.'”

“At the Johnson Space Center, when Mike walks down the hall, they’re all practically saluting him,” Rich said. “He’s a legend in his own right.”

Suffredini’s professional life has revolved around space. “I was like everybody who watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon and decided that NASA was cool and wanted to work there,” he said. While he’s overseen many missions, he hasn’t been in orbit and has no plans to see Axiom for himself. (“We’d have to work out who’s going to cover my cost,” he demurred, when asked.)

Still, Suffredini sees Axiom as a necessary step in continuing scientific research and development in space, which he believes is crucial to the survival of our species. Axiom may cater to rich thrill seekers, but he insists he is an idealist. “If you just go visit and come back, you’re not pioneering,” he said. “You’ve got to pioneer.”

Pioneers include countries who have yet to send someone to space, material-science researchers, and biologists trying to understand how the body adapts outside Earth’s atmosphere. Also, maybe, Tupperware.

“They’re interested in working with us,” Suffredini said, “testing different types of containers, seeing how you can cook in them in a sort of clean way. But with this idea, this grand idea that we have, comes cleaning dishes and cleaning a microwave, and who wants to do that? Pretty soon we’re going to be flying a butler with every crew.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

SHEILA MARIKAR © 2018 The New York Times

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