Robert Bigelow Is Building Hotels in Space (No, Really)
Robert Bigelow built his first hotel in Las Vegas, before moving to Texas, and then the rest of the Southwestern United states. Now, the founder of the Budget Suites of America chain is expanding his empire further—his next extended stay rental property is currently attached to the International Space Station.
Bigelow first started his space company, Bigelow Aerospace, in 1999 to develop habitats for use as research labs for corporations and countries without space programs, housing for missions to Mars, or even as hotels for tourists on the final frontier. In April the longtime space buff’s dream took a giant leap forward with the successful delivery of BEAM, the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, to the space station (ISS). It’s a result of a $17.8 million contract the company signed with NASA in 2012 to develop and test expandable habitat technology for potential use in deep space. Attached in April, the BEAM structure looks like a giant white marshmallow. It will be fully inflated and ready for testing by late May.
The venture launches Bigelow into the ranks of other starstruck billionaires now staking their claims in zero gravity. He joins Elon Musk, whose SpaceX is competing with Boeing ba to dominate the commercial launch services market. Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin rocket company, meanwhile, is squaring off with Richard Branson’s startup, Virgin Galactic, to offer tourists short hops into space.
More than $3.3 billion was invested in the U.S. last year on commercial space companies, says Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, a trade group for the nascent industry. Of that $3.3 billion, more than $800 million came from venture capital and angel investments in space startups—that’s more VC funding than in the previous 10 years combined.
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Bigelow has spent just under $290 million on his venture, and is the sole benefactor of Bigelow Aerospace, which does not yet make a profit. But he does expect a return on his money—and soon. “Everything depends on the taxi side of the business,” he says. If that works, he thinks space could become a $100 billion industry in the next five years. With all the innovations in space travel, Bigelow believes at least one rocket-powered transportation company will be operational by 2018. Then, he says, “We will offer destinations to go to.” Adding he’s “looking at deploying two habitats in the year 2020.”
If all goes according to Bigelow’s plan, customers will be flown to a habitat and have access to about a third of its 330 cubic meters (the equivalent of a full ISS module) for about $60 million a year, a bargain compared to the $80 million that Russia currently charges for one seat on its Soyuz spacecraft. Russian flights are now the only way to get to the ISS since the United States retired its space shuttle in 2011.
Eventually, Bigelow would like to take the earnings from habitat lease arrangements and reinvest them, in partnership with NASA and other companies, in a program for lunar operations. His hope is that setting up real estate on the Moon will hasten deep space exploration.
If that sounds a little far-fetched, that’s the point. “What does our society have for young people to dream about?” Bigelow asks. “We need to inspire bigger dreams. A headset that turns on a virtual reality is nowhere near as exciting as living that reality in space.”
A version of this article appears in the June 1, 2016 issue of Fortune with the headline “Business’s Final Frontier.”