Mar 042012

An illustration of an envisioned Playboy Club in orbit. (Thomas Tenery/Playboy Enterprises)

Two views of leisure in space came across the Martian Sands news feeds a couple of weeks back. One, reported on and a number of other news organizations, was the illustrated fantasy vision from Playboy and Virgin Galactic of the ultimate pleasure palace, or in this case wheel-shaped space station, going around the world every 90 minutes.

The other, if not down to Earth, is a more prosaic image of reality for orbital leisure time. It’s a NASA-released photo from the International Space Station of an astronaut holding a model of the ISS he built out of LEGO bricks.

Clearly the distance between the fantasy vision and the reality of orbital leisure time is still measured in parsecs.

It is the difference between the über rich who buy their way into space for pleasure and the working-class astronaut just trying to find something to do during a few hours downtime. It is an area potentially ripe for conflict in the future, which means it’s a ripe topic for sci-fi.

Orbiting roulette wheel

The Playboy Club in space would be the ultimate destination for the rich and self-proclaimed fabulous. It’s shaped like the traditionally envisioned space station wheel to supply artificial gravity, though the real action occurs in the zero-g hub with a free-floating dance club and a private, weightless “pleasure dome.”

The March issue of Playboy features the orbital vision, and includes details like a giant roulette wheel where the players themselves are the ball. I dunno, that sounds to me more like a vision from Woody Allen’s “Sleepers” than something from Hugh Hefner. But giant roulette wheel aside, the creation of a destination spot where the rich go into orbit and their money does a free fall into the developer’s bank account may be too enticing a gamble for the right entrepreneur to resist. You have to think this is more than a fantasy in the mind of Sir Richard Branson.

Taking LEGO to new heights

It makes sense, in a way. Astronauts put together the International Space Station like a LEGO set, snapping together interlocking pieces. It’s just that the ISS took 12.5 years and estimates of $35 billion to $100 billion to build, depending on how you count your billions. It took Japanese astronaut Satoshi Furukawa a couple of hours to build his LEGO space. NASA didn’t release the cost estimate of this customized LEGO set, but a more simplified version of the space station LEGO sells goes for under $200.

To be fair. This wasn’t just a hobby project for Furukawa, though he said he had fun building it. He used the finished model as an educational tool for a series of videos viewed by students here on Earth. Another video NASA released in February showed Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield discussing how he’ll play a Larrivée Parlor guitar that’s been on the shuttle for six years now. Hadfield is scheduled to take command of the space station in December 2012, but with his downtime when he’s up there, mostly on Sundays, he’ll record some music with that guitar.

Japanese astronaut Satoshi Furukawa holds a model of the International Space Station he built from LEGO bricks while in orbit. (NASA)

Whether it’s playing guitar, putting together LEGO models, or whatever else strikes their interests, astronauts will find ways to break the routine during long missions. With spacefarers spending weeks and months, and eventually years and the rest of their lives off Earth, what they do to entertain themselves and relieve their boredom during downtime will be a pressing issue.

Will these astronauts look at the orbiting roulette wheel that houses some future Playboy Club and feel envy, and maybe resentment, because even if these astronauts are well paid, they’re not paid well enough to rub elbows with the high-flying rich and share in luxurious pursuits?

So far, only a few rich passengers have been able to buy a ticket to the existing space station, and even then, they’re obligated to do some modicum of work and go through aggressive training – kind of like people who pay to work on a farm or a dude ranch, but rather more intense. No one sees the ISS as primarily a tourist destination, but Russia does use the desire to experience space travel as an opportunity to bring in some money to their space program.

Tourism doesn’t drive the ISS, but it is driving Virgin Galactic’s spaceliner business toward its first commercial flight to space from New Mexico’s Spaceport America. Indeed, Virgin’s Galactic preparations for carrying paying passengers on sub-orbital flights is the main face of Spaceport America. So is it a case of a public-private partnership funding an endeavor that benefits a wealthy few, or does it represent broader efforts to develop commercial spaceflight driven in part by the willing participation and funding of those paying passengers?

Even before Virgin Galactic’s first commercial flight, Scale Composites, the company that builds Galactic’s spaceliner system, announced a partnership with Space X and Dynetics to develop a similarly designed but beefed up air launch system that reaches orbit, ferrying cargo and crew to the ISS, and deploying satellites. That’s where the real money is, and most of it not from the rich taking a spectacular joy ride. Well-heeled tourists, however, will likely be a significant public face of commercial space flight throughout this century and help boost its development. Yet the rich tourists are bound to raise the perception that space is becoming the new playground for the rich, a perception Virgin Galactic might welcome, and sci-fi writers can exploit.

Tom Chmielewski

Playboy Club in Orbit

Astronaut builds LEGO space station

Space Station guitar

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