An inflatable spacecraft designed to test technology for a future space hotel is to be launched from Russia on Wednesday.

"Everything is on track and scheduled for launch," Robert Bigelow said in a prepared statement. Bigelow is the founder of Bigelow Aerospace in Las Vegas, Nevada, US, which is behind the inflatable test vehicle.

Called Genesis I, it is set to launch from Russia’s Dombarovsky missile base in Siberia. If all goes well, it will be blasted into an orbit 550 kilometres above the Earth. Once there, it will inflate to its full size of 3 metres by 2.4 m.

The launch had originally been set for 16 June but was delayed for unknown reasons. At the time, Bigelow said only that the launch was postponed to do "some things that are necessary for the launch vehicle".

The launch vehicle is a Dnepr rocket, which is a converted Russian intercontinental ballistic missile. "The Dnepr is a fairly reliable launch vehicle, but there have been failures," says James Muncy, who heads a space consultancy firm called PoliSpace in Alexandria, Virginia, US. "You can’t beat the price, on the order of $5 million or $10 million a flight."

The walls of Genesis I are made of a tough carbon-fibre material designed to withstand the impact of micrometeorites and space debris. And Genesis I will carry 13 cameras, which will take pictures and video of the Earth and the spacecraft itself, including personal items floating inside.

If Genesis I is a success, Bigelow will launch a second test craft called Genesis II later in 2006. The company is offering people the chance to send up photos or other objects on Genesis II for a few hundred dollars per item.

Genesis I is one-third the size of a proposed space hotel that is based on an abandoned NASA concept for an inflatable space station called TransHab.

Bigelow hopes to build the 330-cubic-metre space hotel by 2012. But even if that happens, the lack of a low-cost vehicle to ferry people to and from the hotel remains a big obstacle. Bigelow has offered a $50 million prize for the first privately funded launch vehicle that could carry humans to a Bigelow space station.

So far Bigelow Aerospace is alone in its plans for a space hotel. Other space tourism companies like Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin are focusing in the near term on vehicles to carry people to the edge of space, but not to orbit.

And the big publicly traded aerospace firms do not see space tourism as a viable business yet, says Paul Nisbet, an industry analyst at JSA Research in Newport, Rhode Island, US.

"I think it could change very rapidly if someone proves that there’s money to be made," he says. "I’m sure they’re watching such endeavours very closely."