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Design heavyweights Philippe Starck and Marc Newson battle it out for a place in space.

Space tourism is just a few years away. As the millionaires book their seats, Philippe Starck is busy designing the visual identity for Virgin Galactic, while Marc Newson is designing for EADS Astrium


Philippe Starck and Marc Newson both grew up fascinated by space. As the son of an airplane engineer, Starck's interest in space is hereditary, while for Newson, designing for space is a dream come true.

"It's the fulfilment of a lifelong personal ambition," Newson enthuses. "I was looking forward to going into space anyway, and absolutely the best way to go is in a craft I've designed."

Now, the two heavyweight designers, from France and Australia respectively, have both been commissioned to design spacecraft. Starck is designing the visual identity for Virgin Galactic, while Newson has designed the cabin for Astrium, which is part of the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Company (EADS).

The website www.virgingalactic.com is taking bookings for people to become "the world's first commercial astronauts" and "is planning to start propelling its first astronauts into space by 2009." A trip into space will cost $200,000, although prices are expected to fall after a few years. Virgin Galactic says it has collected over $25 million in customer deposits (each refundable deposit costs $20,000) and is in the process of appointing "Accredited Space Agents" around the world. It hopes to become "the world's first spaceline."

Starck's brief for Virgin Galactic is wide-ranging. He has designed a logo for the brand, which takes the form of Branson's iris, to evoke the British entrepreneur's forward-thinking vision. He is also designing the interiors for the rocket and the underground spaceport in New Mexico, along with clothes and accessories – "luggage, shoes, glasses, watches, things like that."

"The particularity is that they are accessories that you will use and wear in zero gravity," Starck explains. "You will float in space and inside the rocket, so it involves new ergonomics. We are trying to make the designs as dematerialised, as light and as invisible as possible in order to appreciate the beautiful experience of the sensation of zero gravity and of seeing the earth from afar. Ideally, if you were to make an image, it would be of people being nude and floating inside a cloud."

The spaceport, designed by UK architects Foster & Partners, will cost around $225 million to build. It is being developed on a patch of New Mexico wasteland. "The climate there is very dry, and there aren't any clouds, so it's a very favorable place for making a space base," says Starck. Virgin Galactic will also be developing bases elsewhere in the world, although the whereabouts are confidential.

Despite accusations from Friends of the Earth, the British environmental group, that "Virgin Galactic will be the ultimate in irresponsible elitist travel," Starck claims, "The rocket is really small and consumes hardly anything. The only potential ecological impact is the spaceport. I gave the architects an absolute rule of trying to have zero impact on nature, consuming as little energy as possible, producing our own energy and being invisible."

In contrast to most leisure spacecraft, which will consist of a mother ship and a rocket, Astrium is launching a spaceplane: a single craft with both jet and rocket engines, which will take off from a standard airport. (The spaceplane will use jet engines to climb to an altitude of 12 km. Rocket engines will take it up to 60 km, and then the craft will rise to zero gravity at 100 km. After three minutes of "zero-G," the spaceplane will return to earth under its own power.) Commercial flights, taking four passengers as opposed to Virgin Galactic's six, are expected to start in 2012 and will cost between $205,000 and $275,000 per ticket.

Newson, whose credentials include designing aircraft interiors and an airport lounge for Qantas, has installed 15 windows into Astrium's spaceplane's cabin. The windows are all 30 percent bigger than those in a civilian jet airliner. The idea is to offer passengers different views of space, the stars, the Moon and the Earth when they are floating inside the cabin.

"Fundamentally, the cabin is fairly small, but the geometry of everything is completely different from every other aircraft I have worked on," Newson explains. "For me the most important thing was to make the cabin more user-friendly, bearing in mind that the passengers at one point will be experiencing zero-G, or weightlessness, and floating around the cabin. I wanted to make it easy for them to navigate around the cabin for maximum viewing and without hurting themselves in the process."

Newson's biggest ergonomic challenge has been the seats, since passengers would fly off the back of upright aircraft seats in zero gravity. His aim was to design seats that could rotate by 90 degrees and shift around the passengers' bodies, even when they weigh "three times more than normal," due to the strong gravity force. Newson has worked with Sogerma, a French company owned by EADS, to develop "a very, very high-tech hammock" that would pivot on an axis whenever the spaceplane changes angle.

For a simple, elegant design that would not be "overwhelmingly technocratic," he has employed a color scheme of yellow, gray and white for both the cabin's interior and the livery of the spaceplane's exterior. "Yellow and gray are the most legible colors, which is why they're used in aeronautical instruments," he explains.

The approaching space era has also been inspiring artists. For instance, Yinka Shonibare has made an installation entitled The Space Walk, which shows two astronauts in zero gravity attached to the same space capsule. It featured in the exhibition Tomorrow Now: When Design Meets Science Fiction at the Mudam (Musée d'Art Moderne Grand-Duc Jean) in Luxembourg. Shonibare's astronauts wear wax outfits, made from a material produced in Holland, to create the traditional dress of African women, and bear motifs representing black soul music album covers. Shonibare, a London-based artist with Nigerian ancestry who describes himself as "truly bi-cultural," often questions the issue of mixed cultural identity in his work. Referring to The Space Walk, he asks, "Who is foreign when we leave the Earth?"

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