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

Entrepreneurs are at work on space habitat; prototypes already in orbit.

ByABC News
June 25, 2009, 2:11 PM

June 26, 2009 — -- Imagine yourself, sometime in the next decade, with a fantastic idea for a new business that requires manufacturing in the weightlessness of space. Or maybe, having made your fortune on Earth, you'd simply like to vacation in a very high place.

The Russians charge upward of $50 million for a short trip to the International Space Station. NASA can't help you at all. But there's a Nevada company ready to offer a month's stay in Earth orbit for $15 million -- a bargain, considering that for 40 years, the cost of space travel has stubbornly refused to come down.

Sounds like one of those things guaranteed never to happen? Maybe, but Robert Bigelow has two prototype space habitats, unmanned but functional, orbiting 350 miles above Earth, right now.

"If we're not successful, I think other countries will be," said Bigelow from his office near Las Vegas. "I think NASA is on the verge of being irrelevant, except for deep space exploration."

Bigelow made his fortune in the hotel business -- the Budget Suites chain of extended-stay hotels is his -- and is literally trying to take the idea to the next level. His Genesis I and Genesis II spacecraft were launched by Russian missiles (much cheaper than American rockets) in 2006 and 2007. Each completes an orbit roughly once every hour and 34 minutes.

Everything about them is outside-the-box. The two ships are inflatable -- though with walls made from a super-strong fabric called Vectran, they cannot easily be punctured. (A micrometeoroid might actually bounce off.) They folded up neatly inside a rocket's nose cone for launch, and then opened in orbit. It's an idea NASA tried and discarded for part of the space station.

Bigelow Aerospace is now working on its next ship, called Sundancer, which could be large enough to house three space travelers in orbit. Even the attitude thrusters (small jets to keep it properly pointed as it floats in space) are unconventional. Space shuttles use a highly toxic fuel called hydrazine. But Bigelow this week announced a deal to experiment with hydrogen and oxygen, made from water.

Where do you get water in orbit? From the sweat and urine of your hotel guests.