Robert Bigelow plans for a fully functional inflatable space station by 2016 and expects a lunar land grab when China withdraws from the 1967 Outer space treaty

Robert Bigelow is building orbital hotels. High-tech, low-cost inflatable space stations 228 miles above sea level. If the future for humanity is in space, and Bigelow believes it is, we will need a place to stay. Bigelow made a fortune in his lifetime building affordable places to stay on Earth. In the last 15 years he has spent $210 million of his own money, and he says he will spend up to $500 million overall, in order to prove that space is a safe place for a passionate entrepreneurs.

By 2016 Bigelow expects to have a fully functioning station in orbit and to begin charging rent for it. Prices start at $28,750,000 per astronaut for a 30-day tour. That’s a lot of money, he admits, but says economies of scale will drive the price down quickly. He also points out it’s still less than the estimated $35 million Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberté paid in 2009 for 12 days aboard the International Space Station.

He now offers a wide variety of space rental options to suit. An two-astronaut three-month lease on a Sundancer station will cost you $97.5 million; a one-year lease costs $390 million. For those clients with truly cosmic aspirations, a top-of-the-line, 12-astronaut, four-year lease on a larger BA330 station is priced at $440 million a year.

Bigelow is even offering payment plans. Can’t swing that $28.75 million for a 30-day visit? Buy now and spread out your lease over three 10-month periods, with only 30% of your total obligation due in 2012.

If all goes according to plan, by 2014 Bigelow will begin constructing an orbital space complex referred to as “Space Complex Alpha”–at least until he sells the naming rights. Alpha will consist of a complex of connected spacecraft: a Sundancer and a BA330 for customer use, a second Sundancer that will house Bigelow crew to maintain the station and a module that provides a power bus and docking node.

Overhead view of the expansion plans for Bigelow Aerospace factories and offices.

Bigelow Aerospace website

Two Sundancer and one BA330 modules will be part of the first planned space station with a total of about 660 square meters (about 7100 square feet)

He is in talks with more than a dozen nations and has “memorandums of understanding” from countries including Japan, the Netherlands, Singapore, Sweden, Australia and the United Kingdom. In February NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver visited Bigelow Aerospace’s plant in North Las Vegas, and the agency is currently evaluating the company’s expandable modules for use as expansions to the International Space Station.

FORBES estimates his real estate empire is worth $700 million. Bigelow is entirely self-made and owns all his companies and properties outright, including the Budget Suites chain of residential hotels and more than 14,000 apartment and office units across the Southwest

He’s at work on a massive expansion of his plant in North Las Vegas that will double the amount of available floor space to 340,000 square feet; inside, he’s building a scale model of the Sundancer, the first habitat he plans to launch into space. When that’s completed, he’ll build a model of its big brother, the BA330: At 11,600 cubic feet, it has nearly as much volume as the entire ISS.

The U.S. space business had estimated revenue of $40.9 billion in 2010, according to the Aerospace Industries Association, up 18% from revenue of $33.6 billion in 2005. “In ten years time the revenues will be more than double what they are today,” says David Todd, senior space analyst for aerospace consulting firm Ascend.

There’s strong evidence that private industry can do the job as well or better than government. In April a NASA study estimated that SpaceX spent $390 million developing its Falcon 9 rocket and launch vehicle, but if NASA had done the same work, it would have cost between $1.7 billion and $4 billion.

Bigelow predicts a Chinese lunar land grab

The Outer Space Treaty, a 1967 agreement that forms the basis of international space law, has been signed by every major power on Earth. It establishes that the resources of the moon should be shared and that while sovereign nations may explore or build bases, they cannot claim land as their own and must be open to a wide range of United Nations rules, regulations and inspections.

Article 16 of the treaty – Any signatory to the treaty can send a letter of withdrawal and 12 months later will have been recognized to have withdrawn from the treaty. “Now, can you think of a particular country that is very impressive, that is extraordinary in its potential and its power and its capacity … and that has made no bones about going to the moon?”

If China pulls a land grab, Bigelow says, America’s only option will be to withdraw from the treaty as well and send its own personnel to the moon to start claiming American territory. And they’ll have to turn to commercial providers like Bigelow Aerospace to do it. “Without the private sector, this country is not capable of doing that or getting there in time. It will be too little, too late.”

The full text of the 1967 Outer Space treaty is at the US State depratment website. Treaty on Principles Governing the activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies.

Article XVI

Any State Party to the Treaty may give notice of its withdrawal from the Treaty one year after its entry into force by written notification to the Depositary Governments. Such withdrawal shall take effect one year from the date of receipt of this notification.

List of signatories.

China’s stated lunar exploration plans

China space program (Proposed lunar exploration) at wikipedia

In February 2004, the PRC formally started the implementation phase of its unmanned Moon exploration project. According to Sun Laiyan, administrator of the China National Space Administration, the project will involve three phases: orbiting the Moon; landing; and returning samples. The first phase planned to spend 1.4 billion renminbi (approx. US$170 million) to orbit a satellite around the Moon before 2007, which is ongoing. Phase two involves sending a lander before 2010. Phase three involves collecting lunar soil samples before 2020.

On November 27, 2005, the deputy commander of the manned spaceflight program announced that the PRC planned to complete a space station and a manned mission to the Moon by 2020, assuming funding was approved by the government. Towards that end it intended to perfect space walking and docking by 2012.

On June 22, 2006, Long Lehao, deputy chief architect of the lunar probe project, laid out a schedule for China’s lunar exploration. He set 2024 as the date of China’s first moonwalk.

In September 2010, it was announced that the country is planning to carry out explorations in deep space by sending a man to the Moon by 2025. China also hopes to bring a moon rock sample back to Earth in 2017, and subsequently build an observatory on the Moon’s surface. Ye Peijian, Commander in Chief of the Chang’e programme and an academic at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, added that China has the “full capacity to accomplish Mars exploration by 2013.”

According to practice, since the whole project is only at a very early preparatory research phase, no official manned Moon program has been announced yet by the authorities. But its existence is nonetheless revealed by regular intentional leaks in the media. A typical example is the Lunar Roving Vehicle that was shown on a Chinese TV channel during the 2008 May Day celebrations.

Chinese Lunar Exploration Program at wikipedia

India has also talked about manned missions to the moon in the 2020 to 2035 timeframes.

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