(Bloomberg) The International Space Station is getting an inflatable spare room.
The first-of-its-kind habitat built by Bigelow Aerospace LLC weighs 3,000 pounds and is made of a Kevlar-like material to withstand space debris and radiation. It looks more like a giant propane gas tank than a kids' moon bounce and will be attached to a port on the space station.
It will rocket into space in 2015 with the blessing of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which last week awarded the firm a $17.8 million contract to demonstrate the technology. Eventually, Las Vegas hotelier Robert Bigelow wants to build separate stations that might be used as research laboratories orbiting Earth or to establish a permanent presence on the moon or Mars.
"Ultimately, he's hoping to build hotels in low-earth orbit and have that be one of the up-and-coming space businesses -- this will give him more credibility," said Marco Caceres, a senior space analyst with Teal Group Corp. in Fairfax, Virginia. "There's a lot of people out there that say, 'Oh c'mon, hotels in low-earth orbit -- that's a fantasy right?' I believe he has the tools to do it."
The challenge will be finding customers, Caceres said in a phone interview. Bigelow's primary focus is on corporations and governments interested in developing astronaut programs or doing research. Space tourism is secondary, and the company has tried to steer away from the space hotel label.
NASA's willingness to back the mission is a seal of approval, the company has said.
"We look at this as a stepping stone with expandable technologies," Robert Bigelow, 68, said today during a press conference at his company's headquarters, about 10 miles north of the Las Vegas strip. "We have ambitions to go to the moon someday."
NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver echoed Bigelow's enthusiasm for the project.
"It's really our first commercial real estate in space," Garver said.
Bigelow plans to introduce a stand-alone station that can accommodate as many as 12 people by 2016, the company said. A flight to the planned Alpha Station would cost from $26.3 million to $36.8 million for a 60-day stay, "depending on the taxi selected," according to the firm.
Customers could lease a portion of the station for that time period for $25 million. They could even purchase the naming rights to the entire station for a year for an additional $25 million.
The future of private space stations depends on businesses built by other companies. They include billionaire Elon Musk's Space Exploration Technologies Corp., known as SpaceX, which in May 2012 became the first to dock a private cargo ship at the space station. Another is Chicago-based Boeing Co. (BA), the federal government's No. 2 contractor.
NASA in August awarded $1.11 billion in contracts to develop private spacecraft capable of transporting crew. The awards went to Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX, Boeing, and Sparks, Nevada-based Sierra Nevada Corp. The agency plans to begin flying astronauts in at least one of the vehicles in 2017.
"Bigelow needs the companies working on commercial transportation systems to develop those systems so Bigelow can be a customer and acquire flights," Jeff Foust, a space and telecommunications analyst with Futron Corp. in Bethesda, Maryland, said in a phone interview.
Bigelow Aerospace's expandable units are cheaper than metallic structures and are designed to take up less space in a rocket transporting equipment to the space station.
The first inflatable product designed to support crew will be launched in late 2015 aboard a Falcon 9 rocket made by SpaceX. The module will travel in the cargo hold of a Dragon spacecraft, also made by SpaceX, according to Bigelow.
Once the ship docks with the space station, astronauts will use a robotic arm to remove the product and connect it to a port, according to Bigelow Aerospace. Like the furniture sold by Ikea, it will need to be put together. The module will be filled with air so it can expand it to its full size: 13 feet long and 10.5 feet wide (4 meters long and 3 meters wide).
Plans call for the module to remain attached to the space station for about two years. During that time, astronauts will monitor the unit's temperature, pressure, radiation and other data to test the technology's durability.
Hotelier Bigelow is the owner and president of Budget Suites of America Inc., a closely held chain in Nevada, Arizona and Texas. He doesn't reveal his net worth. He has committed about $500 million to his aerospace company, about half of which has been spent.
The space firm, founded in 1999, has about 75 full-time employees and has manufacturing and testing facilities on a 50- acre property in northern Las Vegas. It launched two prototypes in 2006 and 2007.
"The encouraging thing about the Bigelow effort is that it is fundamentally a commercially oriented, profit-driven endeavor," said Chris Quilty, a senior vice president at Raymond James & Associates Inc. in St. Petersburg, Florida.
In addition to Robert Bigelow and SpaceX's Musk, the commercial space industry has attracted several "well-heeled financial backers," Quilty said, including Jeff Bezos, chief executive officer of Amazon.com Inc. (AMZN), and Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group Ltd.
Bezos created Kent, Washington-based Blue Origin LLC in 2000. It won $22 million from NASA to design a spacecraft capable of carrying astronauts. Branson launched Virgin Galactic, which plans to enter the satellite launch business following its foray into space tourism.
"Clearly these are smart people who have developed what they think are well-grounded business models," Quilty said. "But there is absolutely a degree of romanticism and higher calling involved in these types of investments."