Space Hotels—The Final Frontier for the Ultra Rich
Dan Matutina
Future of Travel

Space Hotels—The Final Frontier for the Ultra Rich

As space tourism continues to grow, so does the potential need for somewhere to stay for those who make it there.

The Future of Travel column is a monthly series exploring the innovations and bold ideas moving travel forward.

In the mid-1960s, a travel agent on the East Coast started taking deposits for the first commercial trip to the moon, which has still never happened—at least yet. 

Swept up in the Cold War space race, hospitality futurists had a firm belief travelers would soon be jetting beyond Earth. And the late Hilton CEO and president William Barron Hilton quickly saw the financial potential: they'd need somewhere to stay.

Hilton cited the anecdote of the moon travel agent in a talk at the American Astronautical Society conference in 1967, where he unveiled his hopes to build the first hotels off of our home planet, both on the moon and space stations in Earth’s orbit. “I firmly believe that we are going to have Hiltons in outer space,” he said. “Perhaps even soon enough for me to officiate at the formal opening of the first.” 

The idea may not have come to fruition, but it was far more than a marketing gimmick, says Mark Young, a hotel historian and archivist at the Hilton College, University of Houston. “People really took it seriously, and he did, too,” Young says. “We’ve got hundreds of letters from around the world where people heard about his talk and then they’re asking for reservations for the first hotel on the moon.” The closest any of them ever got to a Hilton in space was the brand’s space station cameo in Stanley Kubrick’s epic 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey

Now space hotels are trending again with the rise of private space flights, Young says. “I haven't seen this much interest in space travel since the ’60s.” 

A number of factors means that the ultra rich enjoying a DoubleTree cookie in space, as astronauts did in 2019, no longer seems all that far off. And as power in space quickly shifts from legacy government agencies toward billionaires, issues like space tourism ethics and private sector tycoons controlling access to outer space no longer seem so speculative—nor trivial, when you consider the billions of dollars pumped into the emerging industry or its growing climate impacts.

“I haven't seen this much interest in space travel since the ’60s,” says Mark Young, a hotel historian and archivist at the Hilton College, University of Houston. 

Andrea Edelman Kay

Hotels in orbit are now serious business

“If someone was talking about a space hotel 10 years ago, I would’ve been like, that’s never going to happen,” says Jordan Bimm, a space historian at the University of Chicago and recent Guggenheim fellow at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

And, certainly, there have been a raft of space hotel proposals since the early 2010s that have amounted to vaporware. In 2011, for example, a Russian company announced it would have a space hotel in orbit as soon as 2016. In 2018, a California startup announced it would take reservations for a space hotel expected to open in 2022, with 12-day stays starting at $9.5 million (like many space startups, the proposal is dead as its URL). And the list goes on. 

But the private sector space race kicking into higher gear this year—from Axiom’s second private mission to the International Space Station launching in May to SpaceX planning for the first orbital test flight of its Starship rocket—signals “a new era where we can start to think of these things as plausible,” Bimm says. “I still don’t trust timelines but instead of thinking of them as fully fictitious, I think of them as off by five or 10 years.”

When it comes to major orbital hotel proposals, “the technology piece is there,” explains architect Tim Alatorre, chief operating officer at Orbital Assembly Corporation, a space construction company that aims to have rotating space stations Pioneer and Voyager in orbit within a decade. The barrier for most proposals, he says, has largely been funding. “The number of space startups that have come and gone is a big number.”

What’s changed is NASA and other government agencies’ focus on funding the development of a private space economy. “They are putting a lot of emphasis on building up the commercial LEO [low Earth orbit] ecosystem,” he says. “NASA is outsourcing and hiring private companies for their lunar landers, for building space stations. That’s never happened before.”

The challenges in designing comfortable spaces

In the next couple of decades, the most likely space hotels will be accommodations on larger multi-purpose, low-orbit stations, with at least one waving the Hilton flag

Today, Hilton is in the early phases of consulting on the hospitality design for the private Starlab space station, funded by a NASA contract. That may be a far cry from the Lunar Hilton but it’s the first hotel brand to make any substantive steps toward space tourism. 

"[It’s] the manifestation of decades of dreaming,” says Matt Schuyler, chief brand officer at Hilton. The brand’s involvement on the project will be helping develop “accommodations that make sense for your extended stay,” he says. And in the current era of private space day trips, creating comfortable extended stays is the design challenge. “How do you take the things that you've become accustomed to [on Earth] and make them comfortable in zero gravity environments?” 

The giant leap for space hospitality will be ensuring it doesn’t feel like you’re “paying to go camp in a laboratory,” Alatorre says. 

That’s why Orbital Assembly has made artificial gravity its unique selling proposition. “Our plan is to keep building stations and increasing gravity levels until we find what we're calling the gravity prescription.” That is, gravity that is familiar enough to Earth for comfort and safe for longer stays. 

One unique challenge of space hospitality? Designing spaces that are comfortable.

Andrea Edelman Kay

The “overlord effect” and the ethics of space tourism 

Comfort aside, the rise of space tourism raises a host of ethical problems ranging from the safety of passengers (for this, one travel insurance company has recently announced space tourism coverage) to the colonial rhetoric many space boosters use. But most of all, the current era represents a significant paradigm shift: the ultra rich, rather than the military or science elite, will soon hold much of the power in the low-Earth orbit, with a growing number of proposed space stations and rocket launches being dominated by billionaire-owned startups in the private sector.

To appeal to the tiny percentage of the population who will be able to afford the astronomical costs of vacationing off planet, space tourism companies are eager to commercialize a god-level view of Earth. It’s what author Frank White termed “the overview effect,” a profound and self-transcendent kind of cognitive shift some astronauts have reported feeling when they first viewed Earth from space, a delicate marble of life suspended in darkness. 

A handful of key players are using the overview effect to justify the inevitability—the manifest destiny—of their own private space projects. For example, when Jeff Bezos returned from his first suborbital flight in 2021, he claimed to have experienced just this thing, he said in a news conference, citing it as the reason he would dedicate his time to aerospace company Blue Origin and his environmental philanthropy.

It’s almost a self-fulfilling prophecy for the ultra wealthy, says Bimm, who is currently working on a book about the overview effect. “It’s being sold as if you buy this ticket on a Blue Origin flight […] you’ll have this transformative effect,” says Bimm, whose research has shown how advocates for space travel use the overview effect to drive investment.

In his work, Bimm argues that the overview effect is being co-opted by billionaires in this way to “naturalize whatever their pet project or impulse is.” And if you haven’t been to space, how can you argue they’re wrong? “I call this the ‘overlord effect’—this idea that people will go to space, claim they've had the overview effect, come back to Earth and then use that to justify whatever they want to do,” he says.

While many who’ve reported experiencing the overview effect cite environmental consciousness as the outcome, the anticipated rise in space tourism could worsen the climate emergency, according to a 2022 study by scientists at UCL, MIT and the University of Cambridge. Researchers found that the particles emitted by today’s rockets have enhanced climate effects and are “500 times more efficient at holding heat in the atmosphere.” Left unregulated, this emerging industry could outpace the climate impacts of the commercial aviation industry, scientists warn. 

That’s why, whether it’s a hotel in orbit or Musk’s city on Mars, “we always have to think of them as plans for Earth really,” Bimm says. And therein lies the fledgling space tourism industry’s existential challenge: scaling today’s technology to make vacations in orbit feasible seems likely to make our home planet less habitable. “Space is not a transformative, utopian place. Space is a place where all our earthly problems are reproduced or amplified.”