The Bigelow Aerospace project to privately develop inflatable Earth-orbit space modules is beginning to integrate diverse U.S. and European technologies into subscale and full-scale inflatable test modules and subsystems at the company’s heavily guarded facilities here.

While much public attention is focused on the massive International Space Station (ISS), Bigelow has quietly become a mini-Skunk Works for the NASA Johnson Space Center (JSC).

Ongoing technical assistance to Bigelow from JSC is focused on helping the company spawn development of orbiting commercial inflatable modules by the end of the decade, with the possibility of JSC later using the Bigelow technology for inflatable modules on the Moon or Mars.

Inflatables are attractive because they offer large volume with enormous launch weight savings.

Bigelow Aerospace is also increasing the stakes that low-cost non-government transportation can be available to send astronaut crews to its inflatable space modules in Earth orbit by 2010.

Company founder and millionaire Robert T. Bigelow told Aviation Week & Space Technology that he will announce as early as this week a new $50-million space launch contest called America’s Space Prize.

The objective is to spur development of a low-cost commercial manned orbital vehicle capable of launching 5-7 astronauts at a time to Bigelow inflatable modules by the end of the decade.

America’s Space Prize will be patterned somewhat after the X Prize that will go to the first team to demonstrate back-to-back suborbital flights.

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