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John Spencer Discusses Mars On Earth, Yachts In Space And Space Tourism's Future

Len Ly |
September 8, 2010 | 6:04 p.m. PDT

Senior Staff Reporter

Space architect John Spencer holding a 3-D model of his orbital super yacht Destiny. Photo by Neon Tommy/Len Ly
Space architect John Spencer holding a 3-D model of his orbital super yacht Destiny. Photo by Neon Tommy/Len Ly
John Spencer sometimes receives quizzical looks from strangers when he tells them what he does for a living: space architect, designer and developer. 

“'Like designing the spaces in buildings?'” he says of a stranger's typical reaction.

“And I usually point up to the ceiling,” Spencer says. “It's amazing how many people look up at the ceiling. I say, 'Look a little bit higher.'” 

Look high enough until you catch a glimpse of the cosmos. That kind of space. 

More than $300 million has been invested into building Spencer's original space- and future-themed concepts and designs. His past projects include interior design work for the International Space Station (ISS) and the Aquarius Underwater Laboratory near Key Largo, Fla. He's also behind Space World in Japan, the world's first space-themed amusement park.

“It's poof, here's an idea and years later it's built,” Spencer says, but acknowledges a project eventually has a life of its own. “Most people very honestly don't know nor do they need to know where it started, how it started, how it happened. It just is.” 

But one of Spencer's earliest inspirations came at age 13. It was 1969 and the Apollo 11 spaceflight landed the first humans on Earth's moon.

“I do remember going out and looking at the moon and saying there are people on the moon,” he says. “That was a big, big deal.” 

Little did the young Spencer know that his childhood fascination with space would not grow old, but grow into a profession that has spanned roughly three decades. 

Spencer works from his studio at home in West Los Angeles. The walls include drawings of space vehicles, framed awards and a picture of a grinning Buzz Aldrin- the Apollo 11 astronaut whom Spencer calls a friend of 25 years. Behind the house is his garage-turned-business headquarters.

“It's noisy up there,” Spencer half-jokingly says pointing to his head. “I spend most of my days doing two things: creating stuff and figuring out ways of getting money to make it. ” 

The 54-year-old was born and raised in Los Angeles. Spencer's parents were both from New York, married there, and in the early 1950s moved to California. His father worked at a printing company cutting paper, and his mother was a housekeeper. 

Spencer didn't comprehend the reality of combining design and space into a career until graduate school in the late 1970s. After studying architecture as an undergraduate at the University of Southern California, Spencer pursued a masters at the Southern California Institute of Architecture. There he was introduced to the idea of human colonies in space by Ray Kappe, the school's founder.

“It was one of those moments where you realize you now know what you're going to do for the rest of your life,” Spencer says.


It is the year 2088. Humans have created the first city on Mars and have been living in it for 50 years. The red planet is no longer an extremely dangerous place and Spencer wants you to come play there. 

“So it's not only traveling to the red planet, it's time travel,” Spencer says, referring to what he calls his latest and most interesting concept and design project, Mars World. 

In what would be a simulated Mars city built inside the largest geodesic dome on Earth, Mars World is a $1.6 billion mixed-use, location-based entertainment project. 

The red dome would symbolize Mars and look as though the planet had landed on Earth. With a diameter of 1,000 feet, the dome would be large enough to fit the Rose Bowl inside and to stand as tall as the Giza Pyramid. 

Inside the dome would be 24-hours-a-day entertainment attractions such as dining and nightclubs, as well as Martian landscape for cave exploration, rover races and tram tours.  Space scientists, energy-efficient technologies and predictions of how the first out-of-Earth human colony may look would be included in the designing process to create an authentic Mars atmosphere.

“It's kind of like Las Vegas on Mars because it has a casino, a hotel, a resort, and dining and recreation and entertainment and theaters and all those kinds of things in this unique futuristic Mars setting,” Spencer says.

Approximately five seconds was what it took for him to form the idea of Mars World. 

“No joke,” he says. “Remember, this is what I do.”

City Walk and Universal Studios served as inspiration behind the model of Mars World. Spencer  conceptualized the project three years ago after an attorney for a big developer in Las Vegas expressed interest in creating a unique project.

“And then after a while the developer decided they weren't going to do a new project because they thought the economy was going in the wrong direction,” Spencer says.

Potential locations for Mars World include tourist-heavy destinations such as Las Vegas and Orlando.

A Mars World in Las Vegas, for example, could attract approximately 6.5 million visitors in its first year. The project would probably involve some 3,000 people during the design and construction phase and employ an additional 2,000 to 2,500 people to operate the entertainment complex.

However, the economic downturn will likely continue to delay potential financing of the five-year project domestically. Mars World may begin overseas first, Spencer says. 

Complete details cannot be publicly disclosed during this early stage of the project but he acknowledges there has been interest from potential investors to construct a Mars World in Asia, the Middle East, Brazil and South Africa.

As of August, almost a million dollars has been spent on initial designs. Spencer's Mars World Enterprises, which owns the trademark, brand and design of the location-based entertainment project, plans to raise $9 million this fall to finalize project details. In two years a comprehensive Mars World business layout may then be presented to potential investors.

“If we bring in 40 or 50 million [dollars] just for ourselves, that's actually pretty good,” he says.


Although Spencer's career was inspired by the promise of human off-world settlement, there's a personal reason for his focus on space architecture and design.

For Spencer, the essence of great design is about stepping forward and seeking new pathways of creating things to make the world and life better, or what he partly refers to as being an explorer of “The Design Frontier.”

One of Spencer's heros was geodesic dome creator, Buckminster Fuller.

Spencer says Fuller's perspective was that humans are all astronauts and Earth is one spaceship where there are no lifeboats. By leaving Earth, the most valuable lesson humans can gain is a sense of where they came from, how they need to run the planet and how to advance forward, Spencer says. 

What followed in the early 1980s was Spencer's interest in the fledgling space experience industry, which required a focus on space tourism because there is a limitless marketplace for people who want a unique experience, he says. 

The Venus GP rollercoaster at Space World in Japan. Photo by Space World
The Venus GP rollercoaster at Space World in Japan. Photo by Space World
Spencer's first big break came around 1984 when he gained investors for the concept and design of Space Resort, a large space-themed hotel simulation project. That idea later resulted in a joint venture with Mitsubishi Corp. to create Space World in Japan. 

“And I had another one of those kind of epiphanies where I realized we wanted to model the space tourism industry after the cruise line industry,” he adds. “The cruise line industry exists specifically to make a profit by providing unique experiences. . . Space is exactly the same thing.”

Spencer founded the Space Tourism Society (STS) in 1995 to push forward that vision. STS conducted its first formal meeting a year later and today has grown to roughly 200 chapter members worldwide.

“Our main job, the way I see it, is to promote space experience on all three levels: the real experience, the Earth-based simulation experience and the media experience to brand new people who never connected to space,” he says.

Around the mid 1990s Spencer also began what he calls his most pioneering design project: the orbital super yacht, Destiny.


“I happen to be on my third version,” Spencer says of Destiny.

The totally enclosed orbital yacht is about 300 feet long and the sails are designed to collect solar energy and radiate heat away. The interior design is modeled after an ocean-roaming yacht in terms of cabin rooms and bar areas. There is room for 10 passengers and close to 10 crew members, as well as robots to run services. In the center of the space vehicle is what Spencer calls a float sphere, 60-foot in diameter, where people may dance, play sports and perform other activities in zero gravity.

“My whole vision of space architecture is inflatable structures connected together,” Spencer says. “In the earlier days, you have a hard structure that the inflatables are connected to. .  . But as the sophistication of the inflatable structures advances, you won't eventually need a hard structure to connect them to.”

Destiny is designed based on this developing technology.  Similar to the way the ISS was built, the structures would be brought up into space via different vehicles and then assembled there. The design also incorporates technology trends toward miniaturization as well as smart and self-powered features.

Orbital cruise ships would later enter the mass market, Spencer says, whereas orbital yachts like Destiny would be luxury items because it is still too expensive to travel to space and the technology is only in the early stages.

Similar to the airport and taxi system, Spencer envisions a vehicle would take passengers from Earth to orbit, they would stop at an orbital station, and finally “space taxis” would take passengers further out to space where the orbital yachts are.

“Probably if we had the money, we could probably do Destiny in 10 years,” Spencer says. 

The private sector's access to and development in space is likely to accelerate as a result of the White House's new direction for NASA, he says. Under Obama's budget proposal in February to Congress, the federal space agency would establish commercial partnerships with private space enterprises to ferry astronauts to the ISS instead of operating its own spacecraft.

“I'm a great supporter of NASA but there are some NASA facilities and some NASA programs that are old-thinking, old-line and in my opinion, need to be shut down or canceled,” Spencer says. “We want NASA to be stronger, smarter and faster at moving forward with exploration and technology and let private enterprise contractors provide the support services---transportation, running space facilities, new space ports, all those kinds of stuff.”

Space enthusiasts with $200,000, for example, can now purchase a flight ticket on Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo. The world's first manned commercial spaceship is expected by next year to make its first passenger flight from New Mexico into space on a suborbital flight.

Space tourism growth over the next couple of decades and eventual off-world settlement are just logical extensions of human exploration, Spencer says. He outlined his vision in a 2004 book with Karen L. Rugg entitled, “Space Tourism: Do You Want To Go?” It was the first book published in the United States about space tourism. 

Spencer predicts there will be a growing diversity of ways people could afford to go to space, such as winning the lottery or a Nobel Laureate may go to space as part of the prize.

“We're going to eventually have a movie studio in space, sports stadium in space,” Spencer says. “We're going to have all those kinds of things happening.” 


On April 28-29, 2011  in West Los Angeles the Space Tourism Society will host its first annual multiple-day symposium oriented for high-end business, marketing, design and media professionals who are interested in the space tourism industry. 

Reach reporter Len Ly here.

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