While recreational space travel has been an aspiration of every millennial since 1980, most of those astronauts are retired at this point. It’s not so much about exploration anymore, but about reproduction, says Christopher Lloyd, president of Odyssey Air, a Jackson Hole, Wyo.-based company that designs and builds exoskeletons that allow people to work and do physical work.
Danger aside, Lloyd is taking a bold step in encouraging his employees to book personal space, and in some ways, they’re making a bet that this will be their future livelihood. “We are really, really excited,” he says, “about this mission.”
His challenge to his employees came after a recent visit to a NASA exhibit at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, where he was impressed by some of the model personal spacecraft that could be seen hanging in an airlock. “I said, ‘these are better than what we do,’” he says. So he decided to make them a reality.
Odyssey built the Spheris for its team after they raised $600,000 on Indiegogo, the crowdfunding platform, and it’s now preparing for its inaugural flight at the former Eastern Airlines Flight Center in Iowa City, Iowa, that will take 18 people from around the country and take off on Oct. 24.
Odyssey’s Spheris are designed to give you more sensory feedback as you move, so that you can feel that one of your feet “steers” and another leans your arm back in slow motion. All of these tiny things amount to an illusion that allows you to create a better sense of balance and strength.
The six-person capsule that launched its maiden voyage to Iowa City weighs about 800 pounds; the larger version, called the Prado, can carry up to nine people. And in training, Scott Kelly, NASA’s outgoing and most experienced astronaut, has been using two of the exoskeletons as a “mother ship” and as a ladder, moving from the end of the mother ship to the end of the ladder.
As with the other lifeboats the company has used — and developed over the years — the Spheris weren’t designed to replace a lifeboat. Instead, they are meant to be connected to the lifeboat and used to bring people, if needed, from the lower to upper floors of the vessel and the lifeboat to the upper floor.
“We think this would work for people who are working in confined spaces on space shuttle launches, in bomb shelters,” says Lloyd. Or in the event of a tornado. “The person below gets knocked from where they are,” he says, “and the folks on top get thrown.”
Its high-tech skeleton keeps the passengers in good shape, using accelerometers and gyroscopes to analyze the differences in motion and motion tracking, which in turn can help prevent swiveling due to fatigue and stress in the muscles.
So when it comes to what astronauts on expeditions do in space, Lloyd says that it’s not just about seeing the curvature of the earth and being in space, it’s about gravity, and losing it. “That’s when you feel the difference,” he says.
Although private companies are vying to make high-speed takeoffs and landings (or, as SpaceShipTwo co-founder Richard Branson famously says, “getting to Mars”), Lloyd believes that private citizens will be the big customers in years to come.
“Why would a billionaire want to pay $200,000 when the average astronaut only lives [one] year?” he says.
As that date nears, Lloyd says he’s excited to live on a platform that was once the home of Eastern Airlines flight maintenance and helps the survival of the United States.
“It’s on top of the house, and everything is needed,” he says. “And you can dock a cargo ship on it. And if we need a contractor to work on the craft, you’re welcome to come on the USS Osprey at the flight station.”