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Cosmic adventure for sale
Entrepreneur hopes to launch facilities for tourists and business
By David Tyler
Democrat and Chronicle
(February 7, 2001) -- Gene Meyers has some property in low Earth orbit that he would like to sell you.
Meyers, a Buffalo native, is president of the California-based Space Island Group, a company he started in 1999 to build commercial space stations. He was in Rochester yesterday to promote his company's plans to commercialize space -- and look for potential clients and investors.
The company plans to use fuel tanks from space shuttles to build massive. 500-person space stations with uses ranging from manufacturing to entertainment to tourism. the first station could be in space by 2007, Meyers said.
Using a new private fleet of second generation shuttles, Space Island would ferry workers and equipment into orbit -- at a fraction of what NASA can charge, Meyers said.
"The public is used to the idea that if something is going to happen in space that it will be the doing of NASA. but that's not what was intended," he said. While the idea may seem like a science fiction plot, some analysts think that commercial space ventures are possible with careful execution of the right plan. Space Island's station would connect 12 of the 16-story external fuel tanks in a giant wheel. The station would spin to provide partial gravity. Meyers says the low-gravity environments offer nearly limitless possibilities for businesses -- from manufacturing better lenses and lasers (which Rochester's optic and photonics industries could use) to finding cures for diseases and crafting stronger metal alloys.
For astronauts, time in space carries numerous health risks, such as deteriorating bones and lost muscle, ad side effects such as copious vomiting.
But the weak gravity on the spinning station -- about a third of Earth's - should counteract most of those problems, Meyers said. "you're going up as a tourist for a couple of weeks. It's not going to bother you."
The facilities could be used for hotels, sports arenas and movie studios. Warner Bros. has expressed an interest because of the wheeled-station's resemblance to the craft in 2001: a Space Odyssey.
Station crews would grow their own food and produce their own water. Space Island staff would manage the station.
The trick is turning ideas into reality, which Meyers said he can do. He took his message to area businesses and potential clients, and spoke with space tourism students at Rochester Institute of Technology.
Much of the engineering has already been done. NASA kicked the idea around in the 1970s and 1980s and decided to focus on the shuttle itself.
Meyers said he wants to line up "Olympic-like sponsorships" (at $100 a pop) and investments from union pension funds to provide capital. He estimates he needs from $1 Billion to $2 Billion a year to make his idea fly. The first station would cost up to $12 billion, but costs would shrink which each successor, Meyers said.
NASA's shuttle-related budget is $7 billion to $8 Billion a year he said.
Space Island could rent space to companies for 1 or 2 percent of what NASA charges and still make money, Meyers said.
Some NASA officials and 2001" a Space Odyssey author Arthur C. Clarke have signed on as technical advisors.
Jeff Carr, a spokesman for Florida based United Space Alliance, a private company that helps manage the space shuttle programs, said the commercial space industry, while emerging, faces challenges.
"There's not a ready market for commercial applications in space, "Carr Said. "It's going to take time and commitment and a demonstration that a project can be commercially viable."
Commercial development in a space is inevitable, said RIT mechanical engineering student Tom Percy. "It'll happen whether people want it to or not."
But whether Meyers' plan is the way it will happen is a bigger gamble, said the 23-year old Percy, who plans to go on to graduate school in aerospace engineering. "I'm skeptical of most of these kinds of plans. I always think there are so many groups that have great ideas just like this."
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