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Inflatable space dreams

It's taken months longer than he hoped, but real-estate billionaire Robert Bigelow might just see his first orbital spacecraft take flight at last on Wednesday, courtesy of a converted Russian intercontinental ballistic missile.

If Bigelow Aerospace's Genesis 1 inflatable space module lifts off successfully, the test mission could mark a significant step toward an era of hotels and even sports complexes in space.

Bigelow via AP
An artist's conception shows Bigelow Aerospace's
Genesis 1 spacecraft after orbital inflation.

Russia's Federal Space Agency lists Genesis 1 for a Wednesday launch from the Dombarovsky military missile base in southwestern Siberia. This would be the first on-orbit test of Bigelow's inflatable-module concept, which was actually developed at NASA for future space station modules or Mars ships. When NASA canned the concept, which was known as Transhab, Bigelow bought the rights to commercialize the idea - and hired some of the original designers.

The concept calls for sending up a compressed, soft-sided spacecraft that could be inflated once it's in orbit - sort of like one of those blow-up kiddie play chambers you see at carnivals. Only in this case, the walls are made out of graphite-fiber composite materials that would be tough enough to stand up to encounters with micrometeoroids and orbital debris.

Such modules would be cheaper to send into space, and allow for larger pressurized volumes once they were inflated. For example, the one-third-scale Genesis prototype is designed to puff up from about 6 feet in diameter to about twice that size. As Bigelow's test program proceeds, the prototypes are supposed to grow larger - ending up in a full-scale Nautilus craft that would enclose 11,650 cubic feet (330 cubic meters), or roughly the volume of a three-bedroom home.

Bigelow is already floating some ideas for using the test modules a commercial opportunities: The second launch, which could take place in the September-October time frame, could fly photos and mementos into space for less than $300 each. As part of the deal, pictures of the items floating in zero-G - as well as views outside - would be beamed back down to Earth. Bigelow Aerospace's Web site suggests that a space-based bingo game has been under consideration, as well as space art and orbital billboard messages.

Eventually, space tourism ventures could offer budget accommodations in a Nautilus hotel complex, for far less than the current $20 million going rate for trips to the international space station. And IPX Entertainment's Rocky Persaud has his heart set on using an inflatable module as a venue for zero-G athletics.

Bigelow's venture might sound like a lot of hot air, but NBC News space analyst James Oberg said in an e-mail that "the idea he is pursuing in his 'venture capitalistic' Wild West style has genuine merits and high future profit potential ... if not for him, for the next consortium that picks up the baton."

Oberg said the key shortcoming for Bigelow's plan has always been the question of how to provide affordable access to any private facility built in orbit.

"But two recent trends - the NASA support for commercial space transportation to support the future of the existing space station, and the French-Russian construction of a Soyuz spacecraft launch capability from the equatorial space base at Kourou in French Guiana - promise a potential solution to this shortcoming in the next six to eight years," Oberg wrote.

In the short term, Bigelow is going with the low-cost Russian launches - and in the longer term, he's planning to use SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket. A 2008 flight is already listed on SpaceX's launch manifest. Bigelow is also trying to kick-start the orbital options by sponsoring a $50 million America's Space Prize for private-sector orbital spaceships.

Lots has been written about Bigelow's ambitions: Check out this archived article from Oberg for MSNBC.com, this article from Popular Science, and this from Aviation Week and Spaceflight Now. You'll also find references to the Bigelow plan this week in Technology Review and Flight International. And to keep track of the private-sector space race, you can't do better than Clark Lindsey's RLV and Space Transport News and Jeff Foust's Personal Spaceflight, which both deserve a big tip o' the hat from Cosmic Log.

Once you've drawn in all these facts and fancies, feel free to weigh in with your comments below.

Update for 7:05 p.m. July 11: Bigelow Aerospace's Mike Gold says in an e-mail from Russia that the launch may or may not go off on Wednesday. "All I can say right now is we still expect to hit our previously announced launch window of July 4-14."