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Next up ... a new space station?

Bigelow Aerospace
This graphic shows the comparative sizes
of Bigelow Aerospace's Genesis, Galaxy,
Sundancer and BA-330 space modules.

Bigelow Aerospace's billionaire founder says he'll be skipping a step in his grand plan to send up an inflatable space habitat capable of hosting humans, due to escalating launch costs. That means Bigelow's Sundancer module, which will be designed to accommodate three people, could be ready to go even before 2010.

Word of the schedule change came in an announcement e-mailed today from the venture's Las Vegas headquarters on behalf of Robert Bigelow - who made his fortune in construction and the hotel industry, and has committed to spending $500 million on his private space program.

Bigelow has successfully launched two prototype inflatable modules (Genesis 1 and Genesis 2) on Russian rockets, and he had been planning another test launch in late 2008 or 2009 with a larger prototype, dubbed Galaxy. All these tests would blaze the trail for Sundancer, the first module designed for human habitation.

Now that plan has changed. Here's the word from Bigelow:

"First, I would like to thank all of you who have written, called and otherwise expressed congratulations to myself and our team on the successful launch of Genesis 2. The energy, enthusiasm and encouragement that we receive both here in the U.S. and abroad are an inspiration to us and part of the reason that we believe so strongly in the dream of entrepreneurial space development. I would like to take this opportunity to honor the interest and support that we've received from the general public by providing you with this update in regard to our future plans.

"As anyone associated with the aerospace industry is aware, global launch costs have been rising rapidly over the course of the past few years. These price hikes have been most acute in Russia due to a number of factors including inflation, previously artificially low launch costs and the falling value of the U.S. dollar. What this now means for Bigelow Aerospace is that to conduct another subscale demonstrator mission would cost two to three times what it has in the past.

"This dramatic rise in launch costs has forced us to rethink our strategy with Galaxy. Due to the fact that a high percentage of the systems Galaxy was meant to test can be effectively validated on a terrestrial basis, the technical value of launching the spacecraft - particularly after the successful launch of both Genesis 1 and 2 - is somewhat marginal. Therefore, we have decided to expedite our schedule yet again, and are now planning to move ahead directly with Bigelow Aerospace's first human habitable spacecraft, the Sundancer.

"We still intend to construct and test the Galaxy spacecraft and/or various parts of it in order to gain familiarity and experience with critical subsystems. However, by eliminating the launch of Galaxy, we believe that BA can move more expeditiously to our next step by focusing exclusively on the challenging and exciting task presented by the Sundancer program.

"With this decision made, the future of entrepreneurial, private sector-driven space habitats and complexes could be arriving much earlier than any of us had previously anticipated. While recognizing the inherent difficulty, all of us at BA are eager to begin work on an actual human spaceflight program, which is the reason that I and others began this effort in the first place.

"In the meantime, we now have two spacecraft in orbit - both of which we hope will produce invaluable data for years to come. It's upon this solid foundation that we will be constructing our most ambitious spacecraft yet, the Sundancer. I will continue to keep you all apprised of our progress, and promise that every effort will be made at BA to ensure that this bold next step into human spaceflight will be a successful one."

Sundancer had been set for launch in 2010, but Bigelow's comment that a habitable complex could be available "much earlier than any of us had previously anticipated" implies that 2009 or perhaps even late 2008 might be in the cards.

Just don't chisel those dates in stone: Sure, Bigelow Aerospace has been successful so far, but schedule snags could still develop during the Galaxy testing phase. And Bigelow might decide to wait until there's an orbital spaceship available to transport passengers to Sundancer. That could be a SpaceX Dragon, or a Rocketplane Kistler K-1, or a SpaceShipThree, or even an extra Russian Soyuz craft.

Bigelow Aerospace spokesman Chris Reed told me that the schedule change has energized the team, and hopes are rising in Vegas that the world's first private-sector space station will be in orbit sooner rather than later.

But when would it be safe to say that Sundancer will be scheduled for launch? "It's safe to say not to say," Reed replied.