A space hotel in 2015?

A space hotel in 2015?
Original holidays in low Earth orbit: a company based in Las Vegas is giving it very serious thought and taking all the relevant steps.

A hotel in space for 2015? Based in Las Vegas, the company Bigelow Aerospace believes it possible and has already tested some of the necessary technologies with two unmanned modules launched in 2006 and 2007.Credit: Bigelow Aerospace

A hotel complex that orbits our planet is not exactly a new idea. This futuristic dream has been much envisaged for several decades. The extremely competent Japanese company Shimizu has, for instance, considered a particularly spectacular concept. Unfortunately, this one, like others that feature an impressive structure, has come up against the high cost of space access.

Realism from… Las Vegas!
The bigger the hotel, the more numerous are the launches tasked with taking the elements needed for its construction into space. And when we look at the feat and the budget (in the region of 100 billion dollars) that the assembly of the International Space Station to accommodate 6 people represents (more than 30 space shuttle and 2 Russian Proton rocket flights not counting all the Soyuz missions and the Progress cargo ships over 10 years), we quake at the gigantic means required to create a real hotel capable of accommodating hundreds of customers with a minimum of comfort…

The gigantic hotel complex envisaged by the Japanese company Shimizu: a fabulous dream that requires considerable space means.Credit: Shimizu Corporation

Paradoxically, a more realistic approach has been thought out by a company based in Las Vegas, a town that is more synonymous with extravagance! Its name? Bigelow Aerospace, founded in 1998 by the American Robert Bigelow who made his fortune in the hotel market with his hotel chain Budget Suites of America. He believes that the future of the hotel industry lies in space.
He has, gradually, set up tangible experimentation regarding the technology of inflatable modules, a solution studied by NASA at the beginning of the space era. His company has, for instance, already sent into orbit 2 inflatable unmanned modules, 4.4 m long with a 1.4 m diameter, dubbed Genesis I and II (launched in 2006 and 2007 by hiring the services of a Russian Dnepr rocket).

The inflatable Genesis II module in orbit as photographed by an onboard camera. The two Genesis have enabled Bigelow Aerospace to test their inflatable module concept in space.Credit: Bigelow Aerospace

The next step planned is the sending of Sundancer, a much bigger inflatable module, 8.7 m long with a diameter of 6.3 m. It is possible for this “mini-station” to be lived in, but it will not initially accommodate any astronauts: Bigelow Aerospace is going to use it for automatically testing its technology in orbit. Manned missions will then begin, followed by the addition of a second Sundancer module, and the arrival of the even bigger BA 330 (13.7 m long with a diameter of 6.7 m). Commercial use could begin as early as 2015!

Not just a hotel but also a station to be commercialised
The hotelkeeper from Las Vegas is, however, keeping both his feet firmly on the ground and makes no secret of the fact that the private station is not solely intended for rich space tourists. Other markets envisaged are emerging nations who want to develop a human space flight programme without having to build the entire necessary infrastructure. A State will then be able to buy a complete service from Bigelow Aerospace that includes the sending of its astronauts to the station and the use of the latter for a given time period. The same type of contract is also planned for private companies wanting, for example, to conduct experiments in orbit.

A prototype of the future BA 330 on the Bigelow Aerospace premises. The inflatable module technology makes it possible to send bigger structures into orbit. The spacecraft takes up less space during the launch and is only inflated once it arrives in space.Credit: Bigelow Aerospace

Obviously, such a programme requires rockets capable of putting the Bigelow Aerospace modules into orbit. As far as this is concerned, the current market is not short of contenders and the company from Las Vegas has already entered into negotiations with SpaceX to use its Falcon 9 launch vehicle that was recently successfully inaugurated (see this article) and with Lockheed Martin (via United Launch Alliance) for the Atlas V. With regard to the transportation of astronauts, Bigelow Aerospace is keeping a very careful watch on the aspirations of SpaceX who wants to turn its Dragon space cargo project into a manned capsule in order to meet NASA’s needs in accordance with Barack Obama’s space programme (the transporting of the agency’s astronauts is to be entrusted to the private sector) and is collaborating with Boeing as regards the CST-100.

A Boeing CST-100 capsule ready for docking with the private station belonging to Bigelow Aerospace. An illustration presented by the American aerospace manufacturer at the Farnborough International Airshow.Credit: Boeing

This Crew Space Transportation, capable of carrying 7 people, has also been thought out in reaction to the White House’s new space policy. Moreover, its development constitutes an 18 million dollar contract with NASA. And for the Farnborough International Airshow, which is on until 25 July, Boeing has unveiled images and a video (below) showing its CST-100 on its way to the Bigelow Aerospace Station!

Will Robert Bigelow succeed with his hotels in orbit just as he did on Earth? Only the future will tell us, but the man is taking all the relevant steps: he has said that he is personally ready to invest 500 million dollars and has already contributed 180 million dollars to this project.

Published on 21 July 2010