(Bloomberg ) Robert Bigelow got rich off budget hotel suites that start at $189 a week. Now they are funding his dream of building inflatable space habitats with rates topping $400,000 a day.
For the Las Vegas businessman, his desire to build low orbital dwellings is the ultimate gamble. He has bet $500 million of his own money on his closely held venture, Bigelow Aerospace LLC -- five times what billionaire Elon Musk invested in his own space company.
"If you don't have bucks, there's no Buck Rogers," said Bigelow, 68, echoing a phrase from the film, "The Right Stuff," about the early days of the U.S. spaceflight program.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration this month announced a $17.8 million contract to Bigelow Aerospace for an inflatable room that will be attached to a port on the International Space Station sometime in 2015. Astronauts will use the prototype for two years, allowing NASA to test the technology for "pennies on the dollar," said Lori Garver, the agency's deputy administrator.
Bigelow has spent about half of his stake. He may never recoup the investment, according to Jeff Foust, an analyst at Futron Corp., a Bethesda, Maryland-based technology consulting firm.
"Are there enough customers out there to make this a worthwhile venture?" Foust said. "It's yet to be seen."
NASA's award to Bigelow Aerospace means that the 3,000- pound inflatable spare room that uses a Kevlar-like fabric called Vectran will be tested to see how it withstands space debris and radiation.
The technology is based on an idea conceived in the 1990s by NASA, which let Bigelow license the patents, according to Mike Gold, director of Washington operations for Bigelow Aerospace. The company has taken the blueprints to fruition by building actual test structures, Gold said.
"He's a capitalist in every sense of the word," said Jay Ingham, a Bigelow vice president who previously worked for Raytheon Co. (RTN) "The guys who work hard and are big contributors do really well here."
NASA retired its shuttle fleet in 2011 and relies on Russia for rides to space at a cost of about $63 million per astronaut. It has turned to the private industry to ferry cargo and eventually humans to the station.
Bigelow needs U.S. companies such as Boeing Co. (BA) and Musk's Space Exploration Technologies Corp., known as SpaceX, to develop lower-cost alternatives, Foust said. Otherwise, his private stations "literally won't get off the ground," he said.
SpaceX's first flight last year of an unmanned cargo ship to the International Space Station signaled the start of a new era in commercial spaceflight, Bigelow said.
Eventually, Bigelow intends to build stand-alone stations launched by privately operated rockets that can be used as research laboratories orbiting Earth or be part of an effort to establish a permanent presence on the moon or Mars. Although a permanent habitat won't be ready before 2016, his company is promoting a round-trip flight and 60-day stay aboard the "Alpha Station" for $26.3 million per customer.
Bigelow is a lesser known figure in the privately funded space race that has drawn high-risk adventurers such as Musk and British entrepreneur Richard Branson, whose Virgin Galactic is taking bookings online for $200,000 "Pioneer Astronaut" sub- orbital flights.
'Following A Dream'
"I guess it seems strange or unique to other people," he said. "To me, it's just following a dream that I have had all of my life of doing something important that was space- related."
The hotelier grew up in Las Vegas. During his first semester in college, his father died in a plane crash. He later graduated from Arizona State University with a bachelor's degree in business. He and his wife, Diane, raised two sons.
Bigelow has nursed a lifelong obsession with unidentified flying objects after his mother regaled him with the tale of his grandparents seeing a glowing flying object while driving through the desert in 1947.
He has amassed a library of about 3,500 books about UFOs, cosmology and related subjects. He gave financial backing to the National Institute for Discovery Science, which hunted UFOs and studied paranormal activities before disbanding in 2004. He has personally recorded interviews with almost 250 people who claim to have had a sighting or encounter with a UFO, and said he believes alien wreckage was discovered in Roswell, New Mexico, in the 1940s.
"I'm in the camp that has zero doubt" that UFOs exist and have visited the Earth, Bigelow said in a phone interview.
Bigelow, who declines to discuss his net worth, made his fortune through a chain of residential hotels in the Southwest. He caught the real-estate bug from his maternal grandfather who leased several apartments on his property.
"I kind of, by osmosis, got the notion that you could make a good living off of that and have regular income, if you did the right things," he said. He said he sold about one-third of his Budget Suites of America properties before the recent recession. "People were just throwing money at you and begging you to sell," he said. "It became ridiculous."
James Oberg, a former mission control specialist for NASA and space consultant in Dickinson, Texas, who accompanied Bigelow to Russia in 2007 for the launch of a prototype habitat, said the hotelier has the passion to help shape the next generation of space travel.
"Bigelow has his own style and his own passions," Oberg said in a telephone interview. "He struck me as a builder of things rather than a master and user of wealth and privilege."
On the ground, Bigelow is distinctly low-tech: he shuns e- mail. Visitors to his space venture's headquarters in North Las Vegas will notice that security guards refer to him as "Mr. Big."
Even if he completes his dreams on schedule, Bigelow will then be in his 70s, making it unlikely that the entrepreneur will ever make the trip out to his low-earth orbit habitat.
"This isn't about benefiting one human," Gold said. "This is about opening up space for all of humanity."