An artist's conception shows a Boeing spacecraft pulling up to a Bigelow space station.
Imagine racking up the frequent flier miles by the millions during a trip to low Earth orbit: Here's how it'd work, as sketched out by John Elbon, vice president and program manager for commercial crew programs at Boeing Space Exploration.
You buy your ticket and get a boarding pass from Space Adventures for the trip from Earth to orbit on a Boeing CST-700 spaceship, and show up at a commercial spaceport in Florida to get to the launch pad. The experience is much like boarding an airplane, except that you take a lift up to the top of a rocket rather than queueing up at a jetway.
About eight hours after launch, you pull up to a Bigelow Aerospace orbital station, which looks a bit like a series of sofa pillows connected by tubes. Those space pillows are actually pressurized habitation modules that were inflated after being sent into orbit. In about the time it'd take you to make your way out of an airplane's cabin and through the jetway, you're inside the station for a one- to two-week stay.
At the end of your visit, you get back on a CST-700 for the eight-hour ride back to Earth.
"Someday, that will be a relatively close description of reality," Elbon told his luncheon audience at today's NASA Future Forum, conducted at Seattle's Museum of Flight.
This little story has lots of gaps: Will the CST-700 be as big as a commercial jet, or as small as the seven-passenger CST-100 crew capsule being developed for NASA's use? Will the trip end in an Apollo-style splashdown, or a rough Soyuz-style thump on land, or a smooth, thruster-controlled touchdown?
Elbon is confident that there'll be a story to tell: Boeing is already working with Space Adventures and Bigelow Aerospace to flesh out the scenario. He cautioned that he won't be able to make the case for his scenario unless Boeing wins NASA's business for servicing the International Space Station. "It wouldn't be interesting to do that, though, if there wasn't a significant potential upside," he said.
What would people do once they got off the CST-700 in orbit? Well, what do people do when they get off an airplane at their destination? There's been a lot of talk about orbital hotels, perhaps in part because Robert Bigelow, the founder of Bigelow Aerospace, has been so successful in the terrestrial hotel business. But Elbon said he's talked with some of Bigelow's potential clients, who tend to be government representatives rather than private-sector entrepreneurs — and it turns out they're interested in space for the same reasons cited by the major spacefaring nations.
"There's a prestige of having a spaceflight program for these countries," Elbon said. But there are other reasons as well. "Fundamentally, they believe that pursuing technology, pursuing science ... will ratchet up their economies," he said.
Stay tuned for additional updates from the Future Forum in Seattle by checking in with cosmiclog.com/nasafuture. You can also follow the action in real time by tuning in NASA TV on the Web or following the Twitter hashtag #nasafuture. Next week, we'll have a special video report about the commercial spaceflight revolution in Cosmic Log and msnbc.com's "Future of Technology" section.
Watch the morning talk by NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver on NASA's YouTube channel.
Alan Boyle is msnbc.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.