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No. 2942:
Hilton Hotels in Space

by Andrew Boyd

Today, we reach for the stars. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

It happened in 1967 at a meeting of the AAS — the American Astronomical Society. Astronomers and space enthusiasts from around the world crowded the lecture hall for a special presentation — a presentation by none other than Barron Hilton, then president of Hilton Hotels.

Barron Hilton

Former President of Hilton Hotels Barron Hilton, 1986 (Courtesy of Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries. UH Digital Library)

"Scarcely a day goes by," Hilton told listeners, "that someone doesn't ask me, jovially, when the Lunar Hilton is going to be opened. They're joking, of course. But I don't see it as a joke at all. I firmly believe that we are going to have Hiltons in outer space, perhaps even soon enough for me to officiate at the formal opening of the first."

The sixties were a giddy time for space dreamers. In 1961 President Kennedy challenged the nation to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade, a goal that was achieved eight years later. At the time of Hilton's speech in '67, finishing touches were being put on Stanley Kubrick's epic 2001: A Space Odyssey. The film envisioned a vast orbiting space station servicing regular trips to a permanent colony on the moon. The inhabitants weren't seasoned astronauts in utilitarian structures. They were administrators and scientists in what looked like office complexes — complete with Hilton hotels.

movie poster

Poster of Stanley Kubrick's epic 2001: A Space Odyssey (Photographed by E. A. Boyd)

"Where do we begin," Hilton asked of his astronomical audience, "with the Orbiter Hilton or the Lunar Hilton?" He then outlined his vision — the vision of a man steeped in hospitality. No cell like compartments for Hilton guests. "Rooms will be large, with carpets and drapes and plants." They'll be adorned with wall-to-wall televisions. Meals will be as good as those on Earth thanks to strides in dehydrated food preparation.

And, said Hilton, "If you think we're not going to have a cocktail lounge you don't know Hilton — or travelers. Enter the Galaxy Lounge. Enjoy a martini and see the stars." Drinks will be a mix of pure ethyl alcohol and distilled water, into which the bartender drops a tablet. Poof! "martini, manhattan, scotch, gin — you name it."

Hilton's talk was a mix of honest speculation and playful humor. As we know, the romantic visions of the sixties haven't come to pass. Lunar bases and five star space stations are nowhere to be found. At the time they seemed as inevitable as air travel. Problem is that space travel's more complicated, more expensive, and has limited commercial potential. With one rather large exception: space tourism.

Mark Shuttleworth entering the "functional cargo block's pressurized adapter" on the International Space Station on April 27, 2002. (Wikipedia/NASA)

The thought of going into space remains a dream for millions of earthbound voyagers. And private, for profit firms are busy working to help realize that dream. If tourists begin flocking into space, they may someday need a place to stay. I don't think carpets and drapes and plants are in the cards. More likely a bunk with a view. And just maybe, a martini.

I'm Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

UH brochure
UH brochure
Brochure page from the opening of the Continuing Education Center housing the Hilton College at the University of Houston. (Courtesy of the Massad Family Research Center and Hospitality Industry Archives, University of Houston). 

Notes and references:

Thanks to Sarah Fishman Boyd, Professor of history at the University of Houston, and Mark Young, curator of the Massad Family Research Center and Hospitality Industry Archives, part of the Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management at the University of Houston, for bringing to my attention connections with the Hilton College. The college officially came into being in 1969, the same year the first astronauts landed on the moon, thanks to a donation from Conrad Hilton. The completed building that housed the college had a space theme, including a Galaxy Dining Room. The hotel has since been remodeled.

Presentation of Barron Hilton to a meeting of the American Astronautical Society, 1967. From the website: Accessed April 29, 2014.

This episode first aired on May 1, 2014.