(Feb. 22) -- Imagine taking a vacation in outer space. It won't happen this year or next, but in the not-too-distant future, it may be possible for affluent tourists to blast off into the cosmos for a little R&R.
A Las Vegas businessman is putting up $500 million to make a space hotel possible, but as exciting as that sounds, the true potential of building habitats in space is far more significant.
This is a story of an ambitious project that is far closer to "science" than science fiction. Las Vegas businessman Robert Bigelow has made millions of dollars with his Budget Suites hotel chain. Although the camera-shy millionaire declined to appear on camera, he gave us an insiders tour of an operation that could rewrite human history.
A stone's throw from the corner of Warp Drive and Skywalker Way is a cavernous, 40,000-square foot-building, seemingly big enough to house a jumbo jet. Soon, there will be four identical buildings on the same 50-acre parcel, as well as an even bigger structure the size of this hole, to be built underground. The whole operation is protected by a small is protected by a small army of camo-clad ex-military guys who take their warning signs seriously. It's as if Area 51 had been moved to North Las Vegas.
What's being developed here could drastically alter life on earth, because it would allow humans to finally go into space to stay. Russ Common of Bigelow Aerospace says this is a whole new frontier. "It could revolutionize life as we know it," he said.
Aerospace veteran Common heads up the project to build an affordable space habitat.
Living space is a precious commodity out there. Quarters are cramped, and by the time the International Space Station is completed, it will have required 80 launches to get all the pieces together, at a billion dollars per launch.
Bigelow Aerospace has a design that would radically alter the equation.
"Our module uses advanced composite materials, 12 times stronger than aluminum, but it remains flexible so we can fold this module up, launch it in an existing vehicle, and then in orbit it can be expanded, filled with atmosphere, until its two and a half times the volume," Common said. "The big breakthrough is in just three launches, we can have the entire volume of the International Space Station that's taken dozens of launches."
If space habitat could be made cheaper and safer, private companies are likely to want their own space presence. Pharmaceutical companies, for example, know that drugs can be made in space that can't be made on earth: drugs that could hold the cure to assorted diseases. Microgravity would also allow for the manufacture of new, stronger materials; better fiber optics; crystals that could lead to new plentiful sources of energy; and then, of course, there's the potential of space tourism.
Put a six-pack of the Bigelow modules together; rotate them so they have their own gravity; and you've got a space hotel that could orbit the earth, and even do a figure eight around the moon.
"You could have a laser light show on the dark side of the moon; while you're on the back side, blast it with light, show it up," Bigelow said.
An early mockup of Bigelow's module gives you an idea of how much space would be available: some 2,200 square feet--enough for first-class amenities and entertainment, like a cruise ship to the stars.
Even at an estimated cost of $750,000 for a week in space, there would be no shortage of well-heeled travelers ready to go up and get the view of a lifetime. And to think it could all stem from an obscure plant in North Las Vegas -- not in the distant future, but soon.
"By the end of this year, we will be testing our first full-scale unit," Common said. "The target is to have one flight ready by the summer of 2003."
Bigelow Aerospace is the first company in history to apply to the federal government for permission to put its own space station into orbit. Although in the past, private industry has accused NASA of being a roadblock to the development of space, Bigelow told us the new leadership at NASA has promised to help guide his project to fruition. What that could mean is room on the space shuttle to haul a few modules away up yonder.