MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
Nine astronauts are circling the earth right now in the International Space Station. For years, the station has been the only place to stay in space. Well, yesterday, a hotel tycoon took a step toward changing that. An inflatable capsule, a sort of balloon the size of a bus, started orbiting the planet. It's called Genesis-1.
NPR's Nell Boyce reports.
NELL BOYCE reporting:
Robert Bigelow made his fortune on a hotel chain called Budget Suites of America. But yesterday he took that idea to new heights, literally. A Russian rocket blasted off with an inflatable room, a prototype for a new kind of rental property.
Mr. ROBERT BIGELOW (Founder, Bigelow Aerospace): This is a baby one. This is about 15 feet in length and it's about 8 feet in diameter. When it's expanded it's sort of the shape of a watermelon.
BOYCE: The big watermelon is over 300 miles up. Bigelow says it's been an emotional experience to know that its solar panels unfolded and that it puffed up properly. He says it feels like the birth of a new child.
Mr. BIGELOW: It felt like you were becoming a parent and other people here on the team felt that same way. People had tears in their eyes and I had a tear or two in my eyes. Nobody could tell, thank goodness.
BOYCE: This was the culmination of a long dream. The whole time Bigelow was building hotels in Arizona, Nevada and Texas he was secretly hoping to build in outer space. Then, seven years ago, he told his wife that he was starting a new company, Bigelow Aerospace.
Mr. BIGELOW: And I said, oh, by the way, this is what I'm going to really devote myself to and so she thought well, okay. We'll see. You know, it might be a passing fancy.
BOYCE: It wasn't. Bigelow plans to invest $500 million in this venture. He has a giant facility in Las Vegas and over 100 employees. His goal is to build an orbiting complex of rooms that can be used by private companies, foreign countries, or tourists. It's going to be a kind of public space station. And, in fact, he licensed the inflatable technology from NASA.
Mr. BIGELOW: We stand on the shoulders of a NASA program that was cancelled called TransHab.
BOYCE: TransHab was proposed back in 1997 as the crew quarters for NASA's space station. Congress eventually told NASA to stick with traditional aluminum cylinders. But Bigelow says inflatables have advantages. He says his balloons are actually less likely to get damaged by space debris because the shell is made out of layers of tough materials like a bulletproof vest. And it's way cheaper to launch something small that expands than to launch a big, rigid structure.
Mr. BIGELOW: Our first plan over the next five years is to try to get good at what we're doing, try to understand these expandable systems, try to launch maybe six to ten of these spacecraft and then be able to launch full-scale.
BOYCE: The full-scale capsule is around three stories tall, much bigger than the prototypes.
Mr. GEORGE WHITESIDES (Executive Director, National Space Society): I've been inside the full-scale versions of Bigelow's space hotel and it is huge.
BOYCE: That's George Whitesides, of the National Space Society, a group that promotes space exploration. Whitesides says other entrepreneurs are building small rockets and space ships, ways of getting into space. Only Bigelow is working on somewhere you can stay and enjoy it.
Mr. WHITESIDES: You've got this expansive space to float around and to fly in, and so you can experience the true wonder of weightlessness. You're not bouncing around this little tin can. I think people are going to love it.
BOYCE: Genesis-1 will zip around the earth for three to five years before burning up in the atmosphere. Another prototype will launch this fall.
Nell Boyce, NPR News.