LAS VEGAS -- "Having visitors coming to the moon, that would be the destination of all time. That would be really something. More than a few politicians and rich folks would want to do that," said Robert Bigelow.
And the rest of us as well. The idea of a resort on the surface of the moon isn't farfetched at all, certainly not to Bob Bigelow. When he launched his private space program a decade ago, the assumption was that he wanted to duplicate the success of his earthly hotel chain out there, and while Bigelow is convinced tourism will help drive the commercialization of space, he never intended to run any hotels himself.
Bigelow Aerospace is more of a contractor. It will build and lease expandable space habitats as stand-alone modules in orbit, or craft combined into space stations -- like Station Bravo, capable of housing a crew of 24, or as the backbone of permanent bases on the moon or Mars, serviced by stations orbiting above.
"There is no reason you could not have multiple bases," he said.
Other private parties in the space race, like Richard Branson or Space One, have much higher profiles than Bigelow. But the Nevada company is much further along and has far bigger goals than quick, up and down jaunts into the wild blue.
The Bigelow modules represent a more permanent presence, though Bigelow says he and the other space entrepreneurs are all taking steps down the same road.
"The sub-orbital folks have a different mission, but it leads right into orbital activity. Sub-orbital is a good place for the FAA to supervise and get used to frequent flights and for the general public to have access to something that goes 2,500 miles per hour up to 1,000 kilometers. That's pretty exciting," he said.
Other than transportation -- rockets reliable enough to get the modules into space -- the main challenge is making it profitable. Bigelow thinks corporations would lease out a module or entire station, slap their brand on the exterior, like a company naming a sports stadium, for research or bragging rights.
He has already reached tentative deals with seven countries based on specific prices outlined in his leasing guide. It would not be cheap, for instance, to lease one of his Sundancer crafts for a year -- roughly a few hundred million -- but would still be a bargain compared to starting a complete space program.
The International Space Station, for instance, cost the U.S. more than $100 billion. Bigelow says he can build a much larger and safer station for a fraction of that cost and it turns out, his first customer will likely be NASA, whose deputy administrator confirmed that a Bigelow module could soon be added to the ISS.
Former space shuttle pilot Bill Oefelein has been to the space station, but is now working for Bigelow.
"It is very exciting. The commercial space industry is just taking off, literally, and to be a part of it is very exciting," he said.
But still, what would you do out there? Other than the view, why go? There are practical and profitable reasons to be on the moon, Bigelow says -- deep space observatories, valuable resources to tap such as helium 3, or exploit lunar ice deposits to make rocket fuel, which could be burned in thrusters like the one developed by Bigelow's team.
And there's the prestige factor. The U.S. has coasted on its moon landing laurels for 40 years, Bigelow says. Now, with NASA facing cuts, someone else will likely lay claim to the moon.
"The next time we get back to the moon, we will probably be greeted by the Chinese," he said.
The best way to compete in space, Bigelow says, is for NASA to offer support, and then get out of the way and let private companies build and expand, as his company is doing.
"If you had two identical societies, and you had Earth over here and Earth Two over here, and the first Earth only knew terrestrial activities and that's all, but the other had robust microgravity laboratories, where would you put your money on which folks are going to eventually advance the most? You'd have to say it's gotta be the ones with the unique opportunities," said Bigelow.
The company has two spacecraft in orbit. It paid $20 million per launch to Russia, but the Russians keep jacking up the price. So, the company is waiting for American launch companies to get up to speed and become a reliable transportation venue into space.
When that happens, hopefully within two years, Bigelow will add up to 1,500 new jobs at his North Las Vegas plant. A new global industry would then be off and running in Nevada.
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