Orbital Assembly Corporation: The startup takes one small step for space hotels

The California space construction startup announces an early funding win.
Brad Bergan
How people under artificial gravity would look (left), and an illustration of a space station (right).1, 2

If we're going to live in space, we need to take care of our bodies.

And since we evolved on Earth, that means some kind of artificial gravity will be critical for any space habitat.

This is why Orbital Assembly Corporation (OAC) aims to build a private space station in Earth orbit capable of simulating the effects of gravity by spinning around a centrifuge, creating centripetal force.

The California space construction startup announced this week it has raised $1 million in new funding round, which means it can begin "fill[ing] key positions and focus on attracting larger investors and strategic partners," according to a statement emailed to IE.

OAC has said it wants construction of its private space station to start in 2025, with the luxury space hotel going fully operational by 2027. But not everyone is convinced it can really happen on the comparably low-tier scale of millions of dollars.

The question, then, is raised: how far does OAC have to go before it can realistically announce the opening of a fully operational private space hotel?

Artificial gravity is crucial for long-term space hotels

It's been a year since OAC first announced its plans to build the world's first space hotel, on January 30, 2021. The company, staffed by NASA veterans, entrepreneurs, astronauts, scientists, and more, aims to rapidly assemble a fully habitable and privately-owned space station in low-Earth orbit (LEO).

In company statements, Orbital has said it wants to simulate the effects of gravity via centripetal force by spinning the station, according to its initial announcement made on OAC's YouTube channel.

Simulating Earth's gravity will be a great benefit for long-term space travel, since the human body relies in multifarious ways on the pull of Earth's gravity to perform its nominal functions. On the ISS, astronauts typically use straps to attach themselves to various exercise machines, to give their bones and muscles something approaching a walking (or running) experience.

The ISS was specifically designed for microgravity experiments, to advance several disciplines, like microbiology, material science, and many more. In full gravity, many science missions would be less expensive to conduct.

Space luxury, inspired by high sci-fi

OAC explicitly wants to build its station for human comfort, where entrepreneurs can plan the mining of distant cosmic bodies, politicians can meet and work out policy, and space tourists can enjoy a view that 99 percent of the human species never will.

How OAC will do accomplish remains the greatest unknown. The firm wants to develop semi-autonomous robots to construct large-scale structures in space, evolving into the Voyager Space Station (VSS). The VSS is designed to be a circular structure with a 650-feet (200-meter) diameter capable of spinning fast enough to emulate conditions on the lunar surface — which is roughly one-sixth the gravitational force at sea level, on Earth.

In June of 2021, OAC performed a demo of its primary device with which it will build larger segments of the forthcoming space station: the Demonstrator Structural Truss Assembly Robot (DSTAR) fabricator. The next stage was the PSTAR, or Prototype Structural Truss Assembly Robot, which OAC says will join its first space mission in 2023.

The successor of the DSTAR, the PSTAR, will form 156 feet (52 meters) of truss into a circular ring, which, in turn, will become the ultimate prototype for the final Voyager hotel.

Skepticism about the OAC's space tourism goals

Of course, a few million dollars is plenty to fly a single space tourist to space — with tickets for Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo sitting at $450,000 in August 2021.

The ISS cost an incredible $150 billion to build, plus another $1 billion every year. But if the inside of the ISS is built for professional astronauts to carry out cutting-edge science experiments. The ISS is far from a space hotel full of creature comforts.

The completed Voyager space hotel will feature an abundance of amenities, including gyms, spas, themed restaurants, numerous Earth-viewing lounges, bars, and even concert halls. No one has ever attempted to move recreational or cultural facilities of this scale into space, and there's no telling what complications await the first ones to try.

“Exceeding $1 million gives the company the opportunity to fill key positions and focus on attracting larger investors and strategic partners,” says Rhonda Stevenson, Orbital Assembly's chief executive officer, in the email to IE.

“In addition to offering habitation for tourism, we are pursuing companies in industries that can benefit from space manufacturing including semiconductors, data communications, and pharmaceuticals.”

The architecture for OAC's initial space station will be modular and enable what the company sees as "rapid expansion," if demand for leasable space rises. This will eventually mean that "a more diverse population of visitors" will be possible, with "a lower cost per person."

The ambitious idea does have its share of skeptics among space enthusiasts at this early stage.

"I do have hopes for a mega station like [OAC's Voyager], but not from them," began one Redditor in reply to a post about the firm's initial public funding round, which also garnered $1 million. "I suspect companies like Made in Space, Tethers Unlimited, or GITAI will be able to. They are already working on construction and manufacturing drones that in the next few years will be going into orbit."

Other Redditors saw an OAC funding round of $1 million as an inside joke: "1 million? That is a coffee break for the [James] Webb team," read another reply, referencing NASA's recently launched Webb space telescope.

So far, OAC only owns patents for its robots and it may seem seem like the deadline for operational levels — 2027 — is too idealistic. But whether it's OAC, or some other company that follows in their footsteps, space tourism is already here to stay.

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