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Image: Genesis 1
AP
This artist's rendering, released by Bigelow Aerospace, shows the Genesis 1 spacecraft in orbit. The craft is designed to inflate from a diameter of about 4 feet to twice that size.
By Alan Boyle Science editor
msnbc.com
updated 7/13/2006 8:07:26 PM ET 2006-07-14T00:07:26

A Russian military base has launched the first prototype for what could eventually become a private-sector space station built up from inflatable modules, the company funding the project said Wednesday.

The Genesis 1 inflatable spacecraft, developed by Las Vegas-based Bigelow Aerospace, could take a significant step toward an era of privately funded hotels, labs and even sports complexes in space.

The company's founder, real-estate magnate Robert Bigelow, has reportedly committed $500 million to the inflatable-module project, with about $75 million spent so far. In an initial statement, Bigelow said Genesis 1 was successfully launched from Russia's Dombarovsky missile base at 10:53 a.m. ET, atop a Soviet-era intercontinental ballistic missile that was converted to commercial use.

In later statements, Bigelow said his mission control center in Las Vegas was receiving data indicating that Genesis 1 was in its 342-mile-high (550-kilometer-high) target orbit, that its solar arrays were working as planned and that the craft's inflatable skin "has successfully expanded."

The module's internal temperature was 79 degrees Fahrenheit (26 degrees Celsius), and the GPS-based tracking system was working, he said.

Years of work
The launch represents the culmination of years of work by Bigelow and his team, using a concept that was first suggested by NASA for the international space station or Mars-bound spacecraft. NASA scrapped the idea in 2001, but Bigelow licensed the concept for commercial use.

The basic concept calls for launching soft-sided spacecraft that could be inflated once they're in orbit. The walls are made from multiple layers of graphite-fiber composite materials, tough enough to stand up to micrometeoroids and orbital debris. Such modules would be cheaper to send into space, and allow for larger pressurized volumes once they were inflated.

Genesis 1 measures about 14 feet (4 meters) in length and 4 feet (1.2 meters) in diameter, and was designed to inflate in orbit to twice that diameter. The module is equipped with 13 cameras inside and out, and could transmit views of Earth as well as items floating inside the enclosed space for years to come.

Bigelow's time line calls for testing larger and larger prototypes, with roughly two launches per year, leading up to the launch of full-scale Nautilus-class modules each enclosing about 11,650 cubic feet (330 cubic meters), or roughly the volume of a three-bedroom home.

In comparison, the international space station has cost on the order of $100 billion so far, and encloses about 15,000 cubic feet (425 cubic meters) of habitable space.

Under the current plan, the first full-scale Nautilus module would be launched in 2012, and a commercial complex could be available for use by 2015.

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Bigelow has already floated ideas for using the test modules as commercial opportunities: The Genesis 2 launch, which could take place in the September-October time frame, could fly photos and mementos into space for less than $300 each. As part of the deal, pictures of the items floating in zero-G — as well as views from outside — would be beamed back down to Earth. Bigelow Aerospace's Web site suggests that a space-based bingo game has been under consideration, as well as space art and orbital billboard messages.

Hotels and zero-G sports
Eventually, space tourism ventures could offer budget accommodations in a Nautilus hotel complex, for far less than the current $20 million going rate for trips to the international space station. One company, Toronto-based IPX Entertainment, has said the inflatable module could be used as a venue for zero-G athletics .

NBC News space analyst James Oberg said the key shortcoming for Bigelow's plan has always been the question of how to provide affordable access to any private facility built in orbit.

"But two recent trends — the NASA support for commercial space transportation to support the future of the existing space station, and the French-Russian construction of a Soyuz spacecraft launch capability from the equatorial space base at Kourou in French Guiana — promise a potential solution to this shortcoming in the next six to eight years," Oberg said in an e-mail.

In the short term, Bigelow is going with low-cost Russian launches - and in the longer term, he's planning to use SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket. A 2008 flight is already listed on SpaceX's launch manifest. Bigelow is also trying to kick-start the orbital options by sponsoring a $50 million America's Space Prize for private-sector orbital spaceships.

Praise and doubt
Business consultant Jeffrey Manber, former president of the Mircorp space venture, said a successful Genesis 1 launch would be a "wonderful step forward" in space commercialization. But he still had doubts about Bigelow's ability to secure affordable, reliable transportation to orbital space modules.

Under Manber, Mircorp made a deal with the Russians in 2001 for the creation of a standalone space station called Mini Station 1. The venture never got off the ground — due to the technical challenges as well as lack of funds and active opposition from NASA. Manber said that NASA now seems much more supportive of private space ventures, but that Bigelow still faced the "huge challenge" of getting humans safely into orbit.

"In principle, Bigelow has made enormous strides and needs to be complimented. I love people like him," Manber told MSNBC.com. "We're all trying to do it, yet the technological hurdles remain the chief problem. ... How do you get your customers, your hotel visitors, into space on a reliable basis?"

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