The Genesis Pathfinder is the brainchild of Las Vegas hotel developer Bob Bigelow, who is quietly revolutionizing space exploration from his facility in Southern Nevada. Aired on May 25, 2004, on KLAS TV in Las Vegas. First of 2 parts.

When Bob Bigelow announced that he wanted to build the first space hotel, not many people took him seriously. Now, two years after the I-Team’s first visit to his aerospace plant in North Las Vegas, Bigelow’s dream is closer than anyone might imagine.

But the hotel idea is only a small part of the big picture. Bigelow Aerospace has a signed deal with NASA to build a space habitat that will one day be used in orbit, maybe even on the moon and possibly far beyond.

Things are really humming near the intersection of Warp Drive and Skywalker Way, although few people in Nevada have ever seen the place. That’s because what goes on there is protected by iron fences, razor wire, ominous signs, surveillance equipment and armed ex-special forces personnel. Small wonder security is tight at Bigelow Aerospace. The technology under development inside its huge hangars could be worth billions and could turn the future of space exploration on its head.

Glenn Miller, assistant director of engineering at the Johnson Space Center, and a frequent visitor to Bigelow Aerospace. (KLAS-TV)

Glenn Miller is the assistant director of engineering at NASA’s Johnson Space Center and his frequent presence at Bigelow Aerospace, along with other NASA experts, is testimony to a new paradigm within the space program. The government will try to get out of the way so that private companies can conquer space and make it profitable, and accessible.

 “It’s not an amusement park,” Miller said of Bigelow’s work. “We’re building real hardware and it’s destined for space.”

Hotel executive Bob Bigelow has committed $500 million of his own money to the creation of a new space habitat, inflatable structures that could be launched and inflated in space to three times their size.

The lack of habitable space where real work can be done is a primary reason private companies aren’t up there now. It’s too expensive to send up enough habitat to make it worthwhile. A design by Bigelow’s company could change that.

Robert Bigelow talks about expandable systems that his company, Bigelow Aerospace, is designing for housing modules and other uses. (KLAS-TV)

The expandable Genesis Pathfinder will be the first object the company sends to space. If it works as planned, then a few years down the line, the full-size model will go up. That’s known as the Nautilus.

“It gives you the opportunity to do large-scale experiments instead of boxes,” Miller said. “You can get rooms of equipment that you could set up for manufacturing in space. You could have experiments in space.”

The practical benefits of making things in microgravity could mean life-saving medicines, revolutionary new materials and quantum leaps in technology.

A peek inside the Star Trek-ish, full size Nautilus shows just how much space the inflatables would provide. It’s enough to allow for all sorts of things including space tourism. Bigelow figures that just two of his modules would be bigger than the entire space station. His would cost $200 million, compared to $50 billion for the International Space Station. If humans are going to return to the moon or go on to Mars, this is what they’re going to travel in — an odd-shaped habitat from North Las Vegas.

“If it’s going to be any time in our lifetime, it’s going to involve this technology,” Miller said.

The relationship between NASA and Bigelow Aerospace has been formalized. They have signed a series of agreements to work together on the space habitat technology. What’s more, Bigelow has signed contracts for his first two launches.

See Part 2: Bigelow contribution to space exploration is all about the space