Monegasques love their boats. Polo is nice, too—and Formula One can be pretty exciting. But the latest ride for thrill-seekers is out of this world.
When it comes to bragging rights, the super-rich don’t think twice about splashing out to own, say, the world’s largest mega-yacht—the 180-meter Azzam which, at $600 million, is more than the entire cost of One Monte-Carlo, Monaco’s new luxury residential district (see p. 30). But ego trips are about to rocket to a whole new stratosphere, at an altitude of 250 miles from earth to be exact, and Monaco, with a reputation for wealth and extravagance, is leading the pack of new cosmonauts.
In November, during a week-long celebration in Monaco to mark the 60th anniversary of NASA, a memorandum of understanding was signed between Texas-based Axiom Space and Space Systems International-Monaco S.A.M (SSI-Monaco). The deal is to collaborate in training one or more Monaco citizens or residents as private astronauts to send to Low Earth Orbit by the end of 2020, which would make Monaco the 19th sovereign nation to send an astronaut to the International Space Station (ISS). The entire round-trip excursion would take an estimated 10 days, including a week or more in orbit.
“Axiom’s unique ability to build indigenous astronaut selection and training capability to NASA standards will accelerate the development of Monaco’s plans for human spaceflight and space research,” Axiom Space CEO Michael T. Suffredini, 60, said at the time. The company, he added, looks “forward to Monaco joining the human spaceflight community and substantial progress toward Axiom’s vision of making living and working in space commonplace.”
For the Principality, it was the climax to an already stellar event among whose invitees were eight legendary astronauts, including Buzz Aldrin, the second man to set foot on the moon, and Captain Michael López-Alegria, American space-walk record holder and veteran of three Space Shuttle missions and one ISS mission.
Maguy Maccario Doyle, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Principality of Monaco to the United States and Canada, said the event “promoted the entrance of the Principality of Monaco into aeronautics, a field not always associated with the image of Monaco.”
Speaking at an exclusive dinner at the prestigious Automobile Club of Monaco, the Ambassador stated, “Our long-term goal is to make Monaco the privileged platform for the start of discussions related to the importance of space for the purpose of geosciences, earth sciences and the environment.”
But at $55 million a trip (and yes, you get to keep the spacesuit), is Monaco transforming the space-travel industry into a mere playground for UHNWIs? Suffredini does not see it that way.
“Today the ultra-rich are the ones who can afford to fly to space,” he tells me by phone from his office in Houston. “But they are also the ones that can do the most for the good of the planet when they get home. It takes capital to make a significant change and UNHWIs have the resources, they have the foundations.”
The memorandum runs until December 2020 and a separate contract, involving financial commitments and details of the collaboration, is currently being negotiated.
Most countries have a national process to select astronaut candidates, and the government funds their time and effort, from basic and flight-specific training to the mission itself. For Monaco, the candidates must be able to fund some of the expedition, which includes continuous 7 to 10 days in microgravity orbiting at 17,000mph.
“What’s unique about Monaco is that they are looking at opportunities for individual residents or citizens to fly to space representing Monaco, not necessarily as professional astronauts, and in concert with the government,” explains Suffredini, who trained NASA astronauts for flight before he worked his way up to become project manager of ISS at the Johnson Space Center.
“What’s also unique is that Monaco would like to play a role in the future of space travel, more specifically, to provide a hotel in space.” “Monaco is one of the top places in the world for interest in space tourism,” Dr. Ilhami Aygun, President and CEO of SSI-MonacoSAT, shares with me. “So, in our agreement with Axiom, we’ve included a plan to have a Monaco-specific habitable module in space, but more luxurious, more attractive than the actual space station.”
From the Philippe Starck lavishly-designed crew quarters—with 20-inch windows, “awesome” color-changing nano LEDs and ultrahigh-quality music soundproofing—to the independent earth observatory, a giant cupola at the bottom of the space ship that can accommodate four or five people, the space experience provides all the comforts UHNWIs are accustomed to on earth. This includes exercise equipment, a tailored menu, and, of course, a cappuccino maker.
“I know how to keep people well and alive in space, but I couldn’t design a comfortable environment for an individual,” admits Suffredini, who created the privately-owned Axiom Space in January 2015, which today counts 60 employees, most of them with varying degrees of NASA experience. “It’s been fantastic to bring in Philippe and it shows that Axiom as a company is working with the best of the best, not necessarily just space nerds.”
In fact, it could be big business. A study by Axiom Space estimates the various commercial and governmental uses could bring in as much as $37 billion between 2020 and 2030. In 2024, when the ISS (whose first long-term residents arrived in 2000) retires, the Axiom International Commercial Space Station will detach from it.
“It’s a normal reaction that space travel is for the super-rich to ‘fly for the fun of it,’ and at $55 million, only individuals who would part with about 5% of their readily available capital can,” remarks Suffredini, recipient of both the NASA Distinguished Service Medal and NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal.
While candidates, both men and women, come from different backgrounds, a range of ages and professions, and have varying objectives to participate in space travel, there is one commonality that eventually defines them: the Overview Effect, which writer Frank White used in 1987 to illustrate “the mental shift astronauts experience when they consider the earth as part of a larger whole.” In fact, as ISS program manager from 2005 to 2015, Suffredini talked to every individual he sent to orbit before they flew and after they landed, and without exception, they had each experienced this.
“They see this beautiful blue ball with a thin fragile atmosphere around it and they want to protect it; they don’t see borders, cultures or dogma but rather a planet we share together,” he articulates. “They come home wondering how we can work together to make the planet a better place and help it survive—and thus we as a species survive— longer.”
And with the luxury of WiFi in Low Earth Orbit, the development of space tourism will be wide open—even to the point of adding some local Monegasque color. As Dr Aygun comments with a grin, “Why not a link with the casino for online gaming from the space station?”