Betting big on a space hotel
Hotelier Robert Bigelow plans pricey habitats in low Earth orbit,
RWASHINGTON obert 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 LLC — five times what billionaire Elon Musk invested in his own space company.
“If you don’t have bucks, there’s no Buck Rogers,” said Bigelow, 68, echoing a phrase from the film, The Right Stuff, about the early days of the U.S. space flight program.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration this 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 agency’s 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 Bethesda, Md.-based technology consulting firm.
“Are there enough customers out there to make this a worthwhile venture?” Foust said. “It’s yet to be seen.”
NASA’s 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.
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 won’t 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.
James Oberg, a former mission control specialist for NASA and space consultant in Dickinson, Texas, who accompanied Bigelow to Russia in 2007 for the launch of a prototype habitat, said the hotelier has the passion to help shape the next generation of space travel.
“Bigelow has his own style and his own passions,” Oberg said.
NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver and Robert Bigelow, president and founder of Bigelow Aerospace, talk while standing next to the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) during a media briefing.