But its American architect, Howard Wolff, believes his firm, Wimberly Allison Tong & Goo (WAT&G) has reinvented the wheel with its conquest of inner space. All over the world this firm designs hotels so large, they frequently turn into resorts bigger than a small town; now it has joined the space race.
Howard Wolff believes that the completion date of 2017 is a conservative estimate. "We already have all the technology to build it," he says. Today WAT&G will reveal its plans for the world's most extravagant new holiday destination at the World Travel Market in Olympia, London. Howard Wolff has been invited to talk to delegates, "to take the giggle factor out of the project", he says - not to get bookings.
Before the space resort can get off the ground, the architects will need a reusable transport shuttle system. "We're not transport designers, so we need that shuttle bus in operation before we design the docking station on the space resort," Howard Wolff explains. "But it won't be long before tourists take flights into space." A Seattle-based travel company, Zegrahm Space Voyages, has sold more than 250 places at pounds 61,250 each for twice-weekly tours into outer space, starting in July 2002. Fifteen American design companies have registered for the Xprize, worth pounds 7.5m, which a private foundation will award to the first company to send a minimum of three people into space a distance of 100 kilometres, and return them safely to earth, twice within a fortnight. The first pilot to cross the Atlantic, Charles Lindbergh, won the Xprize for his 1927 flight, an adventure that must have seemed as far-fetched as rocketing into space on a holiday coach seems today.
Nasa, which has declared an interest in public space travel, is not involved with developing this orbiting resort; it is privately financed. But, at workshops with Nasa technicians, architects devised a modular building system based on the cylindrical orange fuel tanks clustered around rockets which, when emptied at blast-off, fall away and break up in space. Strung together like a necklace, with spokes as walkways between, the tanks, which measure 226ft in diameter and are 150ft high, can each sleep 100 people in two storeys.
It costs more than pounds 28m to get one of these tanks into space. For blast- off, they have to travel light - so there won't be a grand piano aboard. The architects have sourced lightweight heat-shield tiles and smaller photovoltaic cells to store sunlight and release it as kinetic energy. Food supplies will be grown in hydroponic water-gardens, and water, including urine, will need to be endlessly recycled. Wolff will assure world travellers at Olympia today that drinking recycled urine is, after all, standard practice on space shuttles.
Wolff's space conquest inside the hotels has a light touch, both in style and in substance. Hotel rooms, which are carved into segments like orange slices within the cylinders, will be furnished with inflatable furniture. Heavy mattresses will be replaced with blow-up beds, but occupants will not need to be Velcroed to their beds like astronauts; artificial gravity is introduced to hotel rooms. Travel sickness afflicts most astronauts for the first few days, until they become accustomed to weightlessness - "but some space travellers may only have a few days' holiday", says Wolff. Gravity means that hotel residents can sit down to eat and shower with flowing water - astronauts do it standing up, by soaping themselves and then vacuuming it off. But "it still won't feel like being back on Earth," Wolff says. "One quarter of the gravity you have on earth is still a different experience, like walking on air."
Drawing up conventional floor plans is impossible when there are no floors or ceilings, and being indoors is like inhabiting an inner tube. Wall- to-wall carpets are wrap-around soft surfaces in pods inspired by Kubrick's 2001: a Space Odyssey.
The tanks externally are windowless, because the resort does a full circle around the Earth every 90 minutes, so day follows night in quick succession. This will be the first hotel to boast of no rooms with a view. And no jet lag, either.
The weightless zone under the clear cupola is the heart of the hub. Made of cockpit Plexiglas specially toughened to withstand meteorites (plus the debris of those emptied Nasa fuel tanks that have been floating round since the Sixties) the clear cupola is shaped like Madame Tussaud's Planetarium in London, with a lot more things going on under its roof. "There are lots of fun things to do in zero gravity," Wolff says, "including having sex"; Cupola-land, as he calls it, will have honeymoon suites set among the stars.
Astroturf provides pitches for weightless games in which the force of throwing a ball sends the player accelerating backwards. Here the best thing is the view of the blue planet called Earth, way below. To help them plan the "life-transforming" viewing-platforms, the architects asked the moon-walker Buzz Aldrin to describe the experience of seeing the Earth from space for the first time. It was "like having a globe on your desk", he told them. Clearly, the Earth didn't move for Buzz. Computer-aided images will identify which parts of the Earth are flashing past but, unlike desktop globes, the screened world will have no lines of territorial demarcation.
Health and safety are big issues but Howard Wolff is at pains to explain that cruise liners already have stringent safety measures in place. "I've seen Titanic. If you're in a floating hotel and it hits an iceberg - or, in space, a meteorite - and you need to escape, you don't jump out and survive," he says. "So we have planned safety chambers. There's no doubt the race to fly into space was slowed down by the death of the first space tourist, Christa McAuliffe, in the space shuttle fire in 1986."
In 1969 the astronaut John Glenn strapped himself into his one-man rocket, which was as tightly fitting as an aluminium coffin, lit the fuse and flew off like a firework. It stands on the lawn outside the Science and Space Center in Houston, Texas.
That rocket and its triumphal splashdown in 1969 fired Howard Wolff's imagination to plan a resort in space that is not just a flight of fancy. Most of the hotel and theme-park work that WAT&G designs is rather fanciful - Legoland in Windsor, the Hyatt in Bali, the Four Seasons in Tokyo, Disney's Orlando beach resort, and the pounds 300m Palace of the Lost City in South Africa. Inside a dead volcano there, WAT&G built a hotel from fake-aged, pre-fabricated cast concrete columns that look like balancing rocks. Columns inside are like bamboo bundles topped with fake fronds; outside, savannah has been turned into jungle so effectively that a Tarzan film was shot in the grounds.
Even as it reaches for the stars, WAT&G's latest hotel design opens in the lowest place on Earth, the shores of the Dead Sea in Jordan. In space, where there are no boundaries, these architects will be able to give you the Moon and the stars.