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Space hotel by 2010?

— Billionaire Robert Bigelow has provided more details about his grand plan to put a private-sector space station into orbit in the 2009-2012 time frame, sparking a buzz in the commercial space race. The fact that he's taking that task on isn't new - what is new is the fact that he's working with aerospace giant Lockheed Martin to do it. If the plan unfolds the way Lockheed Martin hopes, it could change the course of the new space race.

Bigelow Aerospace

Artist's conception shows Genesis space module.

To be sure, that's a big "if." First of all, Las Vegas-based Bigelow Aerospace would have to follow up on the surprising success of its first inflatable orbital module, Genesis 1, with an equally successful Genesis 2 test early next year. Then it would have to develop a larger-scale module, currently code-named Sundancer.

Bigelow has contracted with SpaceX, an upstart "New Space" company, for a Falcon 9 rocket launch that could put the 19,000-pound (8,600-kilogram) Sundancer into orbit. SpaceX's current manifest lists that launch in late 2008, but Bigelow told me that the latest timetable calls for the Sundancer to go into orbit in late 2009 or early 2010.

"We would not be ready in '08, and I'm not sure they would be, either," he said.

The Falcon 9, which is still in the design and development phase, isn't the only rocket in the running. "That is a potential lifter for our payload," Bigelow said. Lockheed Martin's Atlas 5 or the Russian Soyuz or Proton rockets could conceivably be used instead.

The Sundancer could provide an orbital destination for as many as three people. And by 2012 or so, Bigelow plans to launch an inflatable module roughly twice as big as the Sundancer, known as the Nautilus or the BA-330. Linking up the Sundancer with the Nautilus and a propulsion/service module would create the equivalent of a five-bedroom house in orbit, accommodating up to nine people.

Bigelow Aerospace could offer space stations on a turnkey basis for use by orbital hotel operators, commercial researchers or even a new crop of national space programs (in accordance with U.S. export restrictions, of course ... I don't imagine there'll be a Bigelow-built Iranian space station, for example).

The biggest "if" of all has to do with how to get all these people into orbit. That's where Lockheed Martin enters the picture, joining SpaceX, the Russians and possibly other players such as Rocketplane Kistler.

Right now, the Atlas 5 is a great rocket for unmanned missions - but it's not yet approved for carrying human passengers. In fact, NASA concluded that it wasn't worth trying to get the Atlas 5 or its Boeing-built competition, the Delta 4, cleared for human spaceflight - which is why the agency is developing a whole new family of rockets, the Ares.

Now it turns out that Bigelow Aerospace is going to work with Lockheed Martin to see whether the Atlas 5 can be cleared for human spaceflight, as an option for delivering passengers to Bigelow-built orbital destinations. Robert Bigelow and Lockheed Martin's George Sowers announced the agreement Thursday during the Space 2006 conference in San Jose, Calif.:

"Initially, the two companies will focus on exploring the technical requirements for the human-qualified launch services needed to transport commercial crew and cargo to expandable orbital space complexes. Bigelow and Lockheed Martin will examine the production and supply of Atlas rockets and comprehensive data describing flight safety and performance. Potential business models and business plans will also be discussed. Following this initial stage, each company will evaluate the feasibility of proceeding with a program to develop a human-qualified Atlas to meet the expected demand."

The agreement doesn't oblige Bigelow to pay any money out to Lockheed Martin - rather, Bigelow will let Lockheed know what it needs, and Lockheed will try to figure out how to fill that need. Eventually, the Federal Aviation Administration would have to sign off on the Atlas 5's use for human spaceflight.

Safety is the key factor, of course, but cost also enters into the picture. Bigelow has targeted $10 million as the per-person price point for sending up orbital space travelers. That's significantly lower than the current published rate for a Soyuz ride to the international space station, which is already significantly lower than Lockheed's current rate..

Lockheed's hope is that more frequent launches will introduce economies of scale, bringing down the cost per launch. That's Bigelow's hope as well.

"It certainly can be a stimulus to their vehicle - and they kinda need that," Bigelow said of Lockheed Martin. "The American launch industry is not as robust anymore."

In the past, space-race handicappers had assumed that Lockheed Martin and the other big aerospace companies weren't interested in serving the low-end market for space travel. If nothing else, this week's agreement signals that they could indeed get interested. In fact, one of the papers presented at Space 2006 lays out Lockheed Martin's concept for a spaceship that could be launched atop an Atlas 5 toward an orbital tourist destination (PDF file).

Bigelow told me that it's only natural for the big aerospace companies to be taking a more entrepreneurial approach to spaceflight, in light of the new space vision set forth by the White House, NASA and the President's Commission on Moon, Mars and Beyond.

"What they did is just really open the doors," Bigelow said.

And it's only natural that it takes a while for the new vision to sink in: "It takes time to turn a 1,000-foot oil tanker," Bigelow said. "That tanker doesn't turn on a dime."

Could a seemingly slow-moving aerospace "dinosaur" like Lockheed Martin really provide safe, reliable space travel at the price points being targeted by the entrepreneurial "mammals"? If so, that could send at least some of the mammals scurrying for cover. In the future, Lockheed Martin could compete for low-end contracts to resupply the international space station as well as the high-end contract it's already won to design NASA's new moonship.

All this has space-race watchers scrambling to review the odds on their betting sheets. But that's not necessarily a bad thing for "New Space" entrepreneurs and their fans. In fact, this could be seen as a way of encouraging the kind of competition that those entrepreneurs say they relish.

"There will be inevitable bumps and failures along the road," consultant Charles Lurio observed in an e-mail commentary, "but I'm much more hopeful than I'd have been just a few years ago that this 'New Space Era' is here to stay, and can be shared by the spunky new firms with those of 'Old Space' who are brave enough to shed their old ways."

Here's a sampling of other news and commentary making its way through the blogosphere: