American hotel mogul Robert Bigelow (who made his fortune with Budget Suites of America), has announced plans to put a giant inflatable space station in orbit with the launch of his new commercial spaceflight company Bigelow Space Operations. Not only will it be more than twice the size of the International Space Station (ISS) but accessible to paying space tourists who want an interstellar holiday.
Before you dismiss Bigelow as a mad hotelier branching into a field he knows nothing about, think again. He actually founded Bigelow Aerospace in 1999 and has successfully built the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (another “expandable habitat”), which NASA attached to the International Space Station in 2016.
The 72-year-old billionaire certainly has ambition. To begin with, he is hoping to get two B330 modules off the ground in 2021. Once in low-Earth orbit, about 250 miles above our planet, the two 16-metre-long units will be inflated with air and joined together to form a small private space station able to accommodate 12 people.
After that, he wants to build a much larger space station, almost 2.5-times the size of the ISS. Bigelow told Business Insider: “We call it the Olympus. It will weigh about 75-80 metric tonnes on launch. It will be a monster spacecraft by any current standards, and we hope that’s something we can be seriously working on over the course of about eight to ten years.”
At the moment, the ISS is devoted to carrying out scientific experiments, but with space tourism taking flight there is also scope for recreational facilities on board. However, Bigelow said: “As badly as we’d like to open up a Budweiser [brewery] on orbit, I think that’s going to have to be deferred to a private-sector-operated station.”
Bigelow Space Operations said in a statement: “These single structures that house humans on a permanent basis will be the largest, most complex structures ever known as stations for human use in space.” It explained that it would need a new manufacturing facility “in Florida, Alabama or other suitable location” to construct them.
How much would a ticket onboard cost? Bigelow says the number could be in the “low seven figures” but most likely in the “low eight figures”. At the moment, everyday cosmonauts visiting the ISS have to pay $20-$40 million. Dennis Tito became the first space tourist to do so in 2001.
Vladimir Solntsev, the president of Russia’s partly state-owned space company Energia, told Sky News that “the next generation of space tourists could expect to pay $100m for the opportunity to ‘go out on a spacewalk and make a film (or) a video clip’.”