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Spaceships and superyachts: How the industry is taking on the final frontier

1 June 2022 • Written by Steve May

The burgeoning space tourism market and the rise of next-generation airships has more in common with the yachting industry than you might think...

Star Trek icon William Shatner described his trip to the edge of space atop Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket as “the most profound experience”. The 90-year old actor was moved to tears as he recounted his 11-minute journey with Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos. “I’m so filled with emotion about what just happened,” he said.

Bucket lists the world over have been upgraded. The promise of such an extraordinary experience is helping power a boom in space tourism. Bezos has already sold more than £100 million in tickets for future rides into the unknown.

Named New Shepard after the first US astronaut Alan Shepard, the Blue Origin suborbital launch vehicle takes off and lands vertically, carrying four passengers
Credit: Blue Origin

While New Shepard skirts the von Kármán line, which at 100 kilometres up is where humans are untethered from gravity, Elon Musk’s SpaceX is pushing higher and faster. The company has already taken astronauts and private citizens to the International Space Station, and Musk envisages ferrying many more back to the moon, on board his gigantic Starship rocket.

Scheduled to fly in 2024, Space Perspective will take adventurers to the edge of space, albeit in a degree more comfort than in the spacecraft of Bezos, Musk or Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic programme. Space Perspective’s Spaceship Neptune space capsule will gracefully ascend to 30,480 metres at 19.3 kilometres an hour – slow enough to appreciate the curved horizon of Mother Earth, before returning to terra firma at a similar pace.

Credit: Blue Origin

There are no G-forces to withstand, and no weightlessness to contend with. Travellers will be cocooned in luxury, says Space Perspective founder and co-CEO Jane Poynter. The inaugural Space Perspective trip will take around six hours – plenty of time to order cocktails as you soak up the astonishing view.

“We certainly thought long and hard about how we’re going to get a lot of people to space, to have that quintessential astronaut experience of seeing Earth from space – and having it be gentle and comfortable,” Poynter says. “I’ve been in this industry a long time. I have tremendous respect for what they [Bezos et al] are doing and the technology that they’ve developed, but we are completely focused on our differentiated experience, opening up space to as many people as possible, people who have otherwise not imagined themselves going to space. That’s  our singular focus.”

The SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule took four civilians to space for a three-day orbit in its Inspiration4 mission
Credit: SpaceX

There will be refreshments on board, Poynter says. “Of course, there’s a loo, Wi-Fi and everything that goes along with that. You don’t actually get the distraction of a weightless experience.”

Space Perspective carried out its first test flight in June 2021 from Kennedy Space Center. Poynter says it was “picture perfect”. The Spaceship Neptune capsule, lifted by space balloon, reached 30,480 metres, traversed the Florida peninsula, before splashing down in the Gulf of Mexico. The same route the passenger flights will eventually take. “That splash is a really safe way for us to terminate the flight; it’s fantastic,” Poynter says.

She sees the balloon as a major selling point. “Our flight is just inherently safe. The flight system has been flown by NASA and others thousands of times. It’s been very well tested. We’ve completely reimagined space flight. When we normally think about space flight, we think high Gs, a lot of acceleration. At 19 kilometres an hour, it’s a very gentle splashdown. The funnel below the capsule attenuates the splashdown, absorbs some of the impact. It truly is a spaceship that when it lands becomes a ship.”

Credit: SpaceX

When Space Perspective begins manned flights, it’ll be operating two Neptune capsules. “We are going to take it a little slow in the first year; we’ll do in the order of 24 flights, one every couple of weeks. Then grow very quickly from there. We’re planning to have each capsule do roughly 50 flights a year,” Poynter says.

While Space Perspective will initially operate out of Florida, the plan is to open up locations around the world. “As we grow, we add more capsules, and then every time we start operating in a new location, it automatically starts with two or three Neptune capsules.”

Poynter believes there are clear parallels with the superyacht industry when it comes to design and technology. “We have a number of people on our staff who have a lot of experience at sea, in designing and building boats and yachts,” she says. “The Neptune is a zero-emission spacecraft. Some of the things that we’re really interested in are already happening in the superyacht industry. Our vehicle is in the hydrogen economy, that’s how it operates. There are so many interesting things happening in the hydrogen world.” Hydrogen fuel cells, now in use on tenders, are a recurring feature of yacht and catamaran prototypes.

One Space Perspective hire is Vincent Bachet, who heads up manufacturing for the Neptune capsule. “He designed all the composite structures for the SpaceX Dragon capsule, as well as Falcon 9 (the partially reusable SpaceX two-stage-to-orbit medium-lift launch vehicle). He also has his own luxury yacht [composites] company,” says Poynter.

“Everything about space flight generally comes down to the weight of something. You’re always fighting that weight battle,” she continues.  “So everything over the last 10 years has been miniaturised; all the electronics and battery systems. It’s only going to get better over the next two or three years.”

Industry migration seems to go both ways. An electric boat business called the Arc Boat Company, set up by former SpaceX engineers, has attracted investment from stars Will Smith, Kevin Durant and Sean Combs. Its first boat will be a 7.3 metre called Arc One, built in aluminium. Boasting 475 horsepower, it’ll reach 35 knots and be able to run for three to five hours.

Renderings of Space Perspective’s Neptune spaceship with its 360-degree views for its passengers to enjoy

Flying a little closer to home, next-generation airships won’t take clients to the edge of space, but they will offer an experience that’s out of this world. A high-tech take on the blimps and Zeppelins of old, they promise to take owner-operators and customers on a leisurely voyage from one extraordinary location to another.

Guillaume Hoddé, CEO and founder of AirYacht, explains: “We want to offer a new yachting experience. Our pitch is ‘sail the sky’.” The first AirYacht is scheduled to be delivered by the end of 2026. “We will then be able to produce two units in 2027 and four units per year depending on the order book.”

Space Perspective will take passengers more than 30 kilometres up, just high enough to see the curvature of Earth

Exploiting the buoyancy of helium, the AirYacht has a flying height of 3,048 metres and a cruising speed of 50 knots. It can travel for a week without landing or refuelling. When it comes to fuel consumption, it’ll be 10 to 50 times less per kilometre than an 80-metre superyacht. Hoddé is currently finalising the design of his inaugural craft with superyacht designer Franck Darnet of Darnet Design.

Hoddé agrees that there are many similarities between airships and superyachts. For one thing, they’re big, he says. “Our first AirYacht will be 200 metres long, with 750 square metres of space inside and more than 300 square metres of outside terraces. They are peaceful, graceful, beautiful designs, sailing in the sky like flying boats. Even if their cruise speed will be much higher than that of ships, they will be able to either stay above a place, ‘anchored’ in the sky, cruise at low speed if you want to enjoy a landscape or go overnight from Nice to Chambord at 50 knots.”

The 200m AirYacht, penned by yacht designer Franck Darnet, will be able to hover in place or set down on land or on water; the first one will be delivered by 2026
Credit: Darnet Design

They will be highly visible (“like a superyacht in the Monaco bay”) but also discreet (“like a yacht going to a remote place that no one can access”). “They will allow you to enjoy a place, like a ship anchored or at the harbour, but anywhere – on the ground next to Chambord or in the middle of the Grand Canyon, as well as at sea,” Hoddé says.

“When we thought about the design, we looked into the literature from Jules Verne to sci-fi or steampunk; in people’s minds, airships are often described and drawn as flying boats. Our pitch to Franck was straightforward: we want a flying yacht for yachting enthusiasts who want to sail the sky but also to reach places where no one has been before. Our AirYacht must be a yacht when landed at sea, but also must be a chalet when landed in a snowy valley, and a lodge when landed in the middle of the savannah.”

Credit: Darnet Design

AirYacht will also use cutting-edge materials in its design. “Our partners are renowned experts in the superyacht and aeronautical industries,” Hoddé says. “An AirYacht is a lighter-than-air machine. It doesn’t fly with the help of an engine, but only because it is lighter than air. That means that we are fighting for weight optimisation. We are looking for the best technologies in terms of composite materials, windows, energy management and safety. And for that, we are looking at the most advanced yachts and aircraft.

“Because an AirYacht will offer an experience that will be more unique than any superyacht has offered today, we have to look for the best technologies,” he continues. “Take the example of energy management. The Residence – that’s what we call the part of the AirYacht we live in – will be fully autonomous, relying only on hydrogen.”

Credit: Darnet Design

So what will make an AirYacht experience unique? There are two key innovations, says Hoddé. “The living part of the AirYacht can be detached from the flying part of it. You will be able to land your Residence on the ground or the water, and enjoy life in the Residence, like at home.

“When flying, the AirYacht is also capable of stationary flight,” Hoddé adds. While stationary, passengers, and even a tender or a car, can be disembarked without any need for a ground support, with a kind of elevator. Imagine disembarking from your 200-metre-long AirYacht in the middle of a golf course.”

Entering service in 2025 is the Airlander 10 airship, available to charter through Cookson Adventures
Credit: Hybrid Air Vehicles

When it comes to journeys, Hoddé says his dream AirYacht adventure is flying just above the rainforest canopy for days: “feeling, smelling, hearing the rainforest from my terrace, feeling so privileged to be part of it. Many people dream of a flight above the savannah, then landing the AirYacht for a few days in their own lodge.”

Hoddé believes there’s a clear synergy when it comes to ownership, too. “Yes, we do imagine superyacht owners owning an AirYacht. The AirYacht owner is already a yacht owner who knows how to operate a superyacht. They love flying, discovering the world and living exclusive, unique experiences. You don’t have to follow the coast when going from A to B, just go in a straight line; hangaring your AirYacht will be done on the ground in a dedicated facility. Just find a place where you can build the hangar and it’s OK. Our partner will also offer a network of hangars for the airships worldwide.

“We are also targeting companies that want to create a new concept – air cruises. Imagine luxury cruises that have never been done before,” he continues. “There are so many possibilities; for example, the US from west to east or the best castles of France. Sleep in the sky, have dinner in the sky, do a pit stop at a castle, disembark a few hundred metres from it with the elevator, visit and then re-embark in the AirYacht.

The luxury model will be like a yachting experience in the sky, albeit faster with its 50-knot cruising speed
Credit: Hybrid Air Vehicles

“Clearly a pivot point of our company was thinking not as a pure aeronautical player but as a superyacht player. Our competitors are within the superyacht industry. An AirYacht will cost around the same price as an 80- to 100-metre superyacht and less than a business jet. All our partners are chosen for their capabilities to think outside the box; they must think yacht first! We want to take the best of the superyacht industry and the aeronautical industry in order to create a new industry and a new business. What we’re looking at is the birth of two new industries: airship superyachts and an air cruise business.”

Cookson Adventures is an early entrant in the air cruise space. The experiential travel company has inked a deal with Hybrid Air Vehicles to charter the next-generation Airlander 10 airship.

Scheduled to enter service from 2025, the Airlander 10 is Hybrid Air Vehicles’ first production aircraft. It can stay airborne for up to five days, has an operating altitude of 3,000 metres, can fly in all weather conditions and take off and land from virtually any flat surface.

The aircraft’s ability to cruise at 50 knots, with the option to reduce even further to 25 knots for wildlife viewing, opens up the tantalising prospect of observing the annual migration in Africa or cruising over open desert in the Middle East. Up to 16 can live on board.

Henry Cookson, founder of Cookson Adventures, says guests can expect similarities between the luxury model of Airlander 10 and the yachting experience. “They are both luxurious platforms for adventure,” he says. “Airlander 10 will have a captain and full crew to look after every need and we will also be able to bring experts on board to enhance the itinerary and ensure each expedition is bespoke to each group.

“There are similarities in design too, with a focus on clean lines. It’s sleek, contemporary and aerodynamic. The dining set-ups will make the most of the spectacular views, while private viewing platforms allow guests to clearly observe natural landmarks and local wildlife.”

one of the experiences that Stellar Frontiers can organise is astronaut training. The company is a pioneer in brokering space tourism experiences
Credit: Adobe Stock

So, does he believe this new market will become as big as the charter yacht business? “We think there’s a huge market,” Cookson says. “As with a superyacht, the journey will be an experience in itself, which guests will want to enjoy in supreme comfort. The slow pace of travel, the low cruising altitude and large panoramic windows will afford incredible views over landscapes that just can’t be appreciated from a traditional fixed-wing aircraft or helicopter. This in some ways  is similar to travelling on a superyacht, but at the same time will offer a very different view of the world.”

Cookson doesn’t think the Airlander will replace the superyacht experience; rather he thinks it will complement it. “Just as submersibles give guests the opportunity to see what’s below the water, the Airlander will allow you to arrive at your destination and gain an aerial perspective. Superyachts are great at exploring the coasts of our planet, subs are great for exploring the depths and airships will offer a new way to explore the interior of continents, such as Antarctica and Africa. The journey will be part of the enjoyment, as you see wildlife and landscapes from the comfort of the bar and the communal lounge.”

Credit: Adobe Stock

If you’re eager to sojourn in Earth orbit, Stellar Frontiers can help out. The latest venture from Geordie Mackay-Lewis, co-founder of experiential travel and yachting company Pelorus, is working with commercial space flight companies to put the affluent into orbit. To date, just a handful of individuals have made it to the International Space Station. It’s a rare club – but if you’re prepared to put in the training, Mackay-Lewis can put you in touch with the right people. His team will also get you on an astronaut training programme or organise a zero-gravity flight on board an Air Zero G aircraft.

“We are essentially creating the brokerage model for space,” explains Mackay-Lewis.  “This partially exists for the payload side, but not for the human side – we feel now is the right time to develop this service for the industry. Stellar Frontiers acts as the mission management company taking care of all the planning, training, comms and administration. We work closely with our clients to make space simple and with all the launch providers to ensure smooth mission management.”

Credit: Axiom Space

The long-term future of space tourism, he predicts, will be dominated by SpaceX. “Their recent success with Inspiration4, becoming the launch provider for the International Space Station and Axiom Station (soon to be the first commercial laboratory and residential infrastructure in space) and with their new rocket Starship coming online soon, will allow them to bring down the cost of space travel significantly and maintain market dominance.”

Mackay-Lewis says there are distinct differences between space tourism and airship propositions. “I see these as very different sectors,” he says. “Airships will provide a sustainable, slow and luxury form of travel, which is timely for post-Covid trends. I also see these aircraft being run similarly to the airline model, by companies such as OceanSky Cruises.”

Think of them as explorer superyachts of the skies, he says. “You will be able to access all remote areas of the planet in comfort and safety from your airship in the near future. I see them as very similar platforms with similar clientele. I think there will be less private ownership and much more of a charter market.”

Credit: Axiom Space

However, while airships and spacecraft differ in functionality and design,  they share a common drive toward sustainability and luxury, Mackay-Lewis says. “All sectors are developing more sustainable technologies, fuels and materials in line with efficient econometrics and consumer demand. And, likewise, both the airships and now the space sector recognise that the more luxurious they can make their propositions, the more appealing the product is to those who can actually afford it. A good example is industrial architect and designer Philippe Starck, who has been commissioned to design luxury pods for the Axiom Station and a new astronaut training facility for Orbite. This is just a snapshot of what is to come for the luxury space sector.”

So, can Mackay-Lewis envisage a time when superyacht owners will jaunt into space before splashing down near their yachts?

“It’s a lovely idea, but maybe a little fanciful for a while,” he says. “As with all yacht owners, time is the commodity, so I can see them using space travel to access their yachts in less time. [Elon Musk’s] Starship could deliver them to  the other side of the planet in less than an  hour; however, maybe supersonic flight will catch up before then.”

One thing, though, is for sure. For superyacht owners interested in space, many exciting options loom on the horizon.

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