Space 'Hotel,' for Business or Pleasure, Takes Shape

"I started out of my garage," said Pickens. "Folks like Mr. Bigelow knew it would be personal with me, that I would be losing sleep at night to meet the schedule."

"We're not a government contractor yet," said Bigelow. "That's a world where there are tons of meetings. We can't afford to take 30 days to make a decision."

There are still big, big hurdles to overcome, not the least of which is that Bigelow does not have an affordable rocket yet that can safely launch guests to the ships. He's counting on another self-made multimillionaire -- Elon Musk, who started PayPal and now has a rocket company called SpaceX -- or perhaps he'll use the Atlas V, a workhorse rocket derived from the one that launched John Glenn in 1962.

"He may fail. Most do," said Howard McCurdy, a professor at American University who studies space policy. "But he might succeed." Startup companies like Bigelow's don't have the "standing armies" of people, McCurdy said, that make operations like NASA's expensive.

"What's cool about these entrepreneurs," said Pickens, "is they can be the game changers."

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