If the 2010s were the decade when small satellites revolutionized the space industry, the 2020s will be when commercial space odysseys finally go mainstream.
Today Andrews and Gaume are taking the wraps off Orbite, a Seattle startup that will focus on getting would-be spacefliers ready for those future odysseys. “You’re going to go to a space camp for the next generation,” Gaume said.
Andrews, who’s been in the space business for more than two decades, said SpaceX’s launch of two NASA astronauts to the International Space Station in May just might have been the opening shot for the revolution in commercial human spaceflight.
“We’re still in those early days when it seems like it’s something that is out there in the future, but SpaceX’s mission was a fundamental milestone that demonstrates the potential of the industry,” he told GeekWire. “And I think it’s going to accelerate here very fast.”
Gaume said Orbite (pronounced the French way, as “or-beet”) will focus on preflight training amid luxury accommodations. “Some people may never fly, by the way,” he said. “They’ll come to experience the preparation and hopefully get an amazing experience out of it.”
The business plan capitalizes on Andrews’ connections in the space industry, plus Gaume’s tech experience and his connections in the hospitality industry. Gaume’s family has three generations’ worth of experience in French villa construction and resort management. One of the jewels in the Gaume family’s crown is La Co(o)rniche, a five-star boutique hotel on the French coast near Bordeaux.
Gaume is a serial entrepreneur who played a part in getting nine technology and media startups off the ground over the past 30 years, beginning when he was 19. Along the way, he became a space enthusiast.
One of his ventures, Space Cargo Unlimited, arranged to have a dozen bottles of red wine sent to the space station last year. The idea behind “Mission WISE” is to bring the wine back to Earth, study the effects of weightlessness on wine maturation — and then deliver the bottles and other space-flown goodies to paying patrons.
Another Mission WISE experiment, looking at microgravity’s effects on grapevine tissue, flew aboard Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital spaceship last December.
As if all that isn’t enough to keep him busy, Gaume has been working at Microsoft for the past few years as part of the company’s global sales, marketing and operations HQ team in Redmond, Wash. “Microsoft has been extremely respectful of my space adventures,” he said.
Gaume met Andrews in the process of pursuing those space adventures. At the time, Spaceflight Inc., a subsidiary of Spaceflight Industries, was ramping up its efforts to send payloads into orbit on a rideshare basis.
Andrews said Gaume planted the seeds of an idea with him during discussions about Space Cargo Unlimited’s experiments. “He always had this vision for building luxury hospitality for people who are going to eventually go off and fly into space,” Andrews recalled. “And I said, ‘Well, that’s interesting, because I always thought we could go off and fly people to space.’ So we started talking.”
The path to Orbite opened up a year and a half ago, when Andrews stepped down from his management duties at Spaceflight Industries. The business plan coalesced with backing from Gaume and outside investors. Sophie Stabile, who has more than two decades of experience in the hospitality industry at Accor Hotels Group, is joining the Orbite team as chief financial officer.
“We have a multi-year plan that results in creating a facility that will open in 2023,” Andrews said. The training complex would provide access to parabolic zero-gravity flights, centrifuge rides that simulate the jolt of acceleration felt during blastoffs and descents from space, and other experiences that will get clients physically and mentally prepared for spaceflight.
Gaume said Orbite’s customers would be treated to a luxury hotel experience, as befits clients who are paying hundreds of thousands of dollars for a suborbital space ride, or millions of dollars for an orbital odyssey. The pricing hasn’t been set, but Gaume said the accommodations would be on par with what’s offered at La Co(o)rniche (where room rates can range above $1,000 a night).
“We’ll have training by the day, by the week, a series of weeks,” he said. “There’s going to be multiple packages. The hotel is truly a space tourist accommodation, so really it’s a supporting function for the training program.”
While the training complex is being designed and built, Orbite could offer services using pre-existing facilities like La Co(o)rniche. Gaume noted that Air Zero G’s European base of operations for parabolic flights is in Bordeaux, not far from the hotel. Similar arrangements could be made with U.S. partners, he said.
The business model depends on making cooperative arrangements with the likes of Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, SpaceX and Boeing — all of which could conceivably start flying paying customers into space within the next year or two. Other potential partners include Axiom Space, which says it has potential customers for space station tours that could start as soon as next year.
Andrews declined to characterize the status of Orbite’s talks with potential partners, other than to say that “we’re talking to everybody.”
Last month, Virgin Galactic announced that it’s working with NASA to develop readiness programs for private astronauts. That may sound similar to what Orbite aims to provide, but Gaume said he was thrilled rather than jealous to hear about Virgin Galactic’s plans. “I think it’s good for the industry,” he said.
Gaume thinks there’ll be plenty of room for a luxury facility that can offers a core experience for spacefliers of all stripes, in addition to the customized training that’ll be required for a given spaceship. “There are merits in being agnostic,” he said.
“It’s pretty much like a base camp when you go to the Himalayas, to Everest,” Gaume explained. “It’s the last place you go before you move into your journey. And that’s where we really want to make a difference. We will work with every single space provider, and try to make an experience that is connecting the dots between these various experiences, between who you are and what you want to get out of your travel. … This is an experience that should start right on Earth.”
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