Robert Bigelow is predicting that space tourism and commerce will take off, and is backing his hunch with cash. Through his other main commercial venture, Bigelow Aerospace, he has inherited a Nasa research programme to develop inflatable space stations.

He describes his goal as “a new cost paradigm for space station construction” — in other words, to bring costs down so much that private companies can boldly go where only governments have so far ventured.

The Genesis Pathfinder, as Bigelow has named his project, is a one-third-scale inflatable, the launch of which is planned for November 2005. This mission will primarily test the inflation technology. If all proceeds smoothly, a full-scale inflatable codenamed Nautilus should head into space in 2006. Bigelow Aerospace states on its website that the programme will “make the difference between space stations being only government-available or having space stations affordable for general business ownership”. The project has been kept largely under wraps but is expected to be officially unveiled later this year.

Space tourism, perhaps the most obvious target for a terrestrial hotel owner, is just one of several commercial possibilities. Once space hotels look a serious prospect, then entertainment venues, such as zero-gravity sporting arenas, are unlikely to be far behind. Bigelow forecasts that space’s near-zero gravity will make it a covetable destination for pharmaceutical companies. Protein crystals can be grown to larger sizes when liberated from the oppressive effects of gravity; larger crystals are easier to study, and so simplify drug design.

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