Robert Bigelow got rich off budget hotel suites that start at $189 a week. Now they are funding his dream of building inflatable space habitats with rates topping $400,000 a day.
For the Las Vegas businessman, his desire to build low orbital dwellings is the ultimate gamble. He has bet $500 million of his own money on his closely held venture, Bigelow Aerospace – five times what billionaire Elon Musk invested in his own space company.
If you dont have bucks, theres no Buck Rogers, said Bigelow, 68, echoing a phrase from the film The Right Stuff, about the early days of the U.S. spaceflight program.
NASA last month announced a $17.8 million contract to Bigelow Aerospace for an inflatable room that will be attached to a port on the International Space Station sometime in 2015. Astronauts will use the prototype for two years, allowing NASA to test the technology for pennies on the dollar, said Lori Garver, the agencys deputy administrator.
Bigelow has spent about half of his stake. He may never recoup the investment, according to Jeff Foust, an analyst at Futron Corp., a technology consulting firm in Bethesda, Md.
Are there enough customers out there to make this a worthwhile venture? Foust said. Its yet to be seen.
NASAs award to Bigelow Aerospace means that the 3,000-pound inflatable spare room that uses a Kevlar-like fabric called Vectran will be tested to see how it withstands space debris and radiation.
The technology is based on an idea conceived in the 1990s by NASA, which let Bigelow license the patents, according to Mike Gold, director of Washington operations for Bigelow Aerospace.
The company has taken the blueprints to fruition by building actual test structures, Gold said.
Hes a capitalist in every sense of the word, said Jay Ingham, a Bigelow vice president who previously worked for Raytheon Co. The guys who work hard and are big contributors do really well here.
NASA retired its shuttle fleet in 2011 and relies on Russia for rides to space at a cost of about $63 million per astronaut. It has turned to the private industry to ferry cargo and eventually humans to the station.
Bigelow needs U.S. companies such as Boeing and Musks Space Exploration Technologies, known as SpaceX, to develop lower-cost alternatives, Foust said. Otherwise, his private stations literally wont get off the ground, he said.
SpaceXs first flight last year of an unmanned cargo ship to the International Space Station signaled the start of a new era in commercial spaceflight, Bigelow said.
Eventually, Bigelow intends to build stand-alone stations launched by privately operated rockets that can be used as research laboratories orbiting Earth or be part of an effort to establish a permanent presence on the moon or Mars.
Although a permanent habitat wont be ready before 2016, his company is promoting a round-trip flight and 60-day stay aboard the Alpha Station for $26.3 million per customer.