NORTH LAS VEGAS, Nev. — NORTH LAS VEGAS, Nev. -- The biggest gambler around these parts is not a high roller going all in with a pair of deuces. He's a real estate magnate who's betting $500 million that he can open the first inflatable hotel in outer space.
As far out as the idea sounds, multimillionaire Robert Bigelow has already launched a one-third scale model of his inflatable space module called Genesis I. The spacecraft was launched in July atop a Russian rocket.
"I'm on cloud nine," Bigelow said at his production facility here, where his team of engineers was tracking the spacecraft after it inflated and entered an orbit 348 miles above Earth.
A second launch is in the works, Bigelow said. A full-scale module is scheduled for orbit within five years and in less than a decade, paying guests could be checking in.
By Earth standards, they won't be getting much for their estimated $8 million weeklong vacation package: no Jacuzzi, no room service, no mints on the pillow.
But then, the best hotel in Paris can't match the view of Earth spinning below as the sun rises and sets every 90 minutes.
Bigelow, a trim 62 with swept-back salt-and-pepper hair, is part of a new breed of entrepreneurs out to break the government monopoly on space exploration. Along with aerospace entrepreneurs Burt Rutan, Elon Musk and others, Bigelow believes there's no reason capitalism can't work in zero gravity.
Though Rutan and Musk are building rockets and space planes, Bigelow believes his inflatable space modules could serve as hotels, conference centers, even sporting complexes where hang-time would be measured in minutes instead of seconds.
Bigelow, who made his fortune with the Budget Suites of America hotel chain, acknowledges there are some big hurdles. Chief among them is the economics of rocketing people into space. So far, only the super-rich, such as multimillionaire investor Dennis Tito, have been able to afford the $20 million price tag for a stay at the International Space Station.
Bigelow's business plan depends on finding a cheaper route to space. Musk, the founder of Space Exploration Technologies Corp. in El Segundo, Calif., also known as SpaceX, is among those working on the problem. But his first test rocket, Falcon 1, failed to reach orbit this year.
"The technical challenges are huge," Bigelow said. "There are plenty of things to worry about."
Some space activists, while praising Bigelow's entrepreneurial spirit, are skeptical that private industry can become a major player in space exploration, at least in the near future.
"People have to have more than a business plan," said Louis Friedman, executive director of the Planetary Society in Pasadena, Calif. "They have to have a failure plan, because they're going to experience failure. Things could go wrong, and my experience is they generally do."
Bigelow's achievements have nevertheless brought a sense of momentum to the small but growing commercial spaceflight industry.
"History likes seeing someone who antes up," said Rick Tumlinson, an author and co-founder of the Space Frontier Foundation in Nyack, N.Y.
Even among the wealthy iconoclasts in the commercial spacecraft industry, Bigelow is a wild card. He worked under a tight veil of secrecy for years before his recent launch. He's never sent an e-mail, feeling it isn't secure enough.
He's hired armed guards - whose uniforms have patches of an alien face on the shoulders - to patrol his 50-acre Bigelow Aerospace complex, surrounded by a tall fence.
Despite his Las Vegas-casual attire of tennis shoes, slacks and Hawaiian shirts, he described himself as "intense and extremely detailed."
He glanced at an assistant sitting at attention nearby. "But I'm getting better at controlling my temper."
He also may be the only space capitalist who believes in UFOs and out-of-body experiences. "I'm an anomaly," he said. "I believe in the existence of presences we can't explain."
As he was growing up in Las Vegas, his grandparents claimed to have had a close encounter. They were driving along a road on 12,000-foot-tall Mount Charleston outside town, Bigelow said, when they saw a UFO coming at them, glowing and radiating colors.
"They expected they would die," he said. His grandfather swerved off the road and looked out the back window to watch the object take off at a steep angle.
This helped stir his interest in unraveling the mysteries of the universe. While a teenager, he decided that he would get involved in space exploration. Knowing it was expensive, he figured he'd have to make a fortune.
Looking around, it was easy to see where the real money was being made in Las Vegas. New casinos were rising out of the desert, and the suburbs were exploding. Bigelow chose real estate, building apartment buildings and motels until he started Budget Suites.
Today, the company has 17 hotels in Nevada, Arizona and Texas with one- and two-bedroom units with kitchens renting from $79 per day.
As his fortune grew, he began to indulge his interests in the paranormal. In 1995, he founded the National Institute for Discovery Science, a clearinghouse for a range of things, including investigations into psychic phenomena, alien abductions and out-of-body and near-death experiences.
He stocked his board of directors with professors and former astronauts such as Edgar Mitchell, the sixth man to walk on the moon.
Bigelow worked closely with John Mack, the controversial Harvard University psychiatrist who investigated the stories of people who believed they had been abducted by aliens. Bigelow interviewed 235 people who claimed to have had close encounters.
"Because of the diversity of the folks involved and the credibility of their backgrounds, as well as the fact that this is a global phenomenon, I think they should be taken seriously," he said.
Some of his own team distance themselves from their boss' views.
"I don't believe any of that," said Brian Aiken, who recently retired as the program manager at Bigelow Aerospace, where he still works as a consultant. "But I don't have to believe everything he believes."
The concept of inflatable space modules has been around since the 1960s, when the Goodyear Aircraft Corp. designed a two-person space station that looked like a giant inner tube. Twenty-four feet across when inflated, it was designed to spin in space to create its own gravity.
Inflatables had some clear advantages over metal structures - they were lightweight and compact.
They only had one serious problem. But it was a big one.
If it got hit, "it could deflate and everybody inside would die," said Roger Launius, curator of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington.
A much more sophisticated version of the idea resurfaced a decade ago, when NASA began work on a three-story inflatable space habitat called TransHab, which was envisioned as crew quarters on the International Space Station.
Its foot-thick shell was composed of two dozen layers, most made of a Kevlar-like substance. The interior of the 23-foot-tall module was designed to hold sleeping compartments for six, a galley and an exercise room.
NASA canceled the project in 2000, saying only that the concept had been tested "but not chosen." Several expert observers said it fell victim to the budget ax.
Bigelow at the time had put his investigations into the paranormal on the back burner and was "trying to find a venue for my space appetite" when he learned of the TransHab cancellation.
"I couldn't believe it," he said. He bought the development rights and formed Bigelow Aerospace, which today has 125 employees working at facilities in North Las Vegas and Houston.
He said he's improved on NASA's design and holds eight patents on the shell. The current design, he said, has more stopping power than 3-inch-thick aluminum.
NASA officials said they could not endorse particular commercial ventures. But James Hartsfield, a spokesman for NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, said the agency would not have transferred the Trans- Hab technology to Bigelow unless it thought his firm was "viable and able to make use of it."
Bigelow pledged $500 million of his fortune to the company. So far, he's spent $75 million.
Some time after 2010, he hopes to be ready to fly his full-scale module, known as the BA 330. It will weigh 20 tons, have three or four individual guest rooms and contain nearly 12,000 cubic feet of space, more than half the volume of the International Space Station.
Even if it is functional, where will the customers come from? "I don't know where the user community is that is driving this need" for a private destination in Earth orbit, Friedman said. "There may be a tourist market, but I don't believe it goes that deeply."
Bigelow said he doesn't intend to rely only on space tourists. Not at first.
He believes there is an untapped market for training facilities in space for astronauts from non-space-faring countries who want the prestige of space exploration but can't afford their own rockets and spaceports.
"We are after dozens of countries that have little or no space program," he said. "We would say, 'We're here for you.'"
He said he's received expressions of interest from some countries, though he declined to name them.
Bigelow doesn't see himself directly operating space hotels. He'd like to leave that to the experts. "We would be like a shopping center. We could provide a mall for all kinds of tenants. One could be a hotel. We would rather lease the space to Harrah's or other big hotel chains."
But he acknowledges that everything comes back to launch economics.
It can cost up to $500 million to launch the space shuttle, which is way out of the ballpark as far as Bigelow is concerned.
That's where Musk comes in. "I think our futures are very closely tied together," Musk said.
He's working on the Falcon 9 launcher and Dragon crew capsule, which could carry seven people for about $30 million. That works out to less than $5 million per seat, but still puts the cost of a weeklong space vacation at $13 million.
Musk, who has yet to have a successful launch, recently got a boost from NASA, by qualifying for a share of a $500 million contract designed to help private companies interested in flying supplies to the International Space Station after the shuttle is retired in 2010.
John Johnson Jr. writes for the Los Angeles Times.