Imagine taking a vacation in outer space. It won’t happen this year or next. But in the not too distant future, it may be possible for affluent tourists to blast off into the cosmos for a little R & R. Las Vegas businessman Robert Bigelow is putting up $500 million to make a space hotel possible. But as exciting as that sounds, the true potential of building habitats in space is far more significant. Aired on Feb. 20, 2002, on KLAS TV in Las Vegas.

Las Vegas businessman Robert Bigelow is worth about $900 million. It’s money he made with his Budget Suites hotel chain and he’s pledged more than half of that fortune to this project.

Robert Bigelow. (KLAS-TV)

Although the millionaire declined to appear on camera, he gave the I-Team an insider’s tour of an operation that could rewrite human history.

A stone’s throw from the corner of Warp Drive and Skywalker Way on the Bigelow Aerospace site is a cavernous 40,000 square foot building seemingly big enough to house a jumbo jet or two. Soon there will be four identical buildings on the same 50-acre parcel, as well as an even bigger structure to be built underground. The whole operation is protected by a small army of camo-clad ex-military guys who take their warning signs seriously. It’s as if Area 51 had been moved to North Las Vegas.

What’s being developed could drastically alter life on Earth because it would allow humans to finally go into space to stay.

Aerospace veteran Russ Common heads up the project to build an affordable space habitat. Living space is a precious commodity out there, quarters are cramped.

Russ Common, an aerospace veteran and vice president at Bigelow, says the company’s modules could drastically change life as the possibility of inhabiting space becomes a reality. (KLAS-TV)

“This is a whole new frontier basically, and it could revolutionize life as we know it,” Common said.

By the time the International Space Station is completed, it will have required 80 launches to get all of its pieces together at a billion dollars per launch. Bigelow Aerospace has a design that would radically alter that equation,

“We’re building a module that uses advanced composite materials that are 12 times stronger than aluminum but remain flexible,” Common said. “So, we can basically fold this model module up and launch it in an existing vehicle and on orbit.”

Once it’s expanded and filled with atmosphere, it’s two and a half times the volume and the big breakthrough in that is that in just three launches of our vehicle, possibly a fourth for connecting nodes and escape vehicles, we could have the entire volume of the ISS when it’s fully built out. And that’s taken dozens of launches.

Russ Common, Bigelow Aerospace vice president

If space habitat could be made cheaper and safer, private companies are likely to want their own space presence. Pharmaceutical companies, for example, know that drugs can be made in space that can’t be made on Earth; drugs that could hold the cure to assorted diseases. Microgravity would also allow for the manufacturer of new stronger materials, better fiber optics, crystals that could lead to new plentiful sources of energy. And then of course, there’s the potential of space tourism.

Put a six pack of the Bigelow modules together, rotate them so they have their own gravity, and you’ve got a space hotel that could orbit the Earth, even do a figure eight around the moon.

“You could probably have a laser light show that that plays on the backside of the dark side of moon,” Common said. “So, while you’re going about on the backside of the moon, you’re blasting it with all kinds of light, and showing up all the things on the backside of the moon.”

An early mockup of Bigelow’s module gives you an idea of how much space would be available inside.

In contrast to typical views inside spacecraft, modules produced by Bigelow Aerospace could be spacious and stronger at the same time. (KLAS-TV)

Some 2,200 square feet, enough for first class amenities and entertainment, like a cruise ship to the stars. Even at an estimated cost of $750,000 for a week in space, there would be no shortage of well-heeled travelers ready to go up and get the view of a lifetime. And to think you could all stem from an obscure plant in North Las Vegas, not in the distant future but soon.

Views inside of spacecraft typically look like this — living quarters sharing space with controls and sensitive high-tech gear. Space is at a premium. (KLAS-TV)

“By the end of this year, we plan to be testing our first full scale unit. Our target date is in the summer of 2003 to have a module that could be flight ready.”

Bigelow Aerospace is the first company in history to apply to the federal government for permission to put its own space station into orbit.

Although in the past, private industry has accused NASA of being a roadblock to the development of space, Robert Bigelow told us the new leadership in NASA has promised to help guide his project to fruition. What that could mean is room on the space shuttle to haul a few modules into space.