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NORTH LAS VEGAS, Nev. — At the Bigelow Aerospace factory here, the full-size space station mockups sitting on the warehouse floor look somewhat like puffy white watermelons. The interiors offer a hint of what spacious living in space might look like.
“Every astronaut we have come in here just says, ‘Wow,’ ” said Robert T. Bigelow, the company founder. “They can’t believe the size of this thing.”
Four years from now, the company plans for real modules to be launched and assembled into the solar system’s first private space station. Paying customers — primarily nations that do not have the money or expertise to build a space program from scratch — would arrive a year later.
In 2016, a second, larger station would follow. The two Bigelow stations would then be home to 36 people at a time — six times as many as currently live on the International Space Station.
If this business plan unfolds as it is written — the company has two fully inflated test modules in orbit already — Bigelow will be buying 15 to 20 rocket launchings in 2017 and in each year after, providing ample business for the private companies that the Obama administration would like to finance for the transportation of astronauts into orbit — the so-called commercial crew initiative.
President Obama’s budget proposal for 2011 calls for investing $6 billion over five years for probably two or more companies to develop spacecraft capable of carrying people into space. Then, instead of operating its own systems, like the space shuttles, NASA would buy rides for its astronauts on these commercial space taxis.
“This represents the entrance of the entrepreneurial mind-set into a field that is poised for rapid growth and new jobs,” Maj. Gen. Charles F. Bolden Jr., the administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, said in February. “And NASA will be driving competition, opening new markets and access to space and catalyzing the potential of American industry.”
Officials have been careful not to say their commercial crew plan relies on a market beyond NASA, but for now, Bigelow appears to be the only non-NASA buyer for commercial crew services.
“Nobody,” Mr. Bigelow said of competition he sees on the horizon.
Thus, the rosier promises of the president’s plan rest on this enigmatic, 100-employee company located on 50 acres of desert not far from the casinos and strip clubs and the ability of Mr. Bigelow, an iconoclast who made his fortune in real estate including the Budget Suites of America hotel chain, to get his dreams off the ground.
He has spent about $180 million of his own money so far and has said he is willing to spend up to $320 million more. An expansion of the factory will double the amount of floor space as the company begins the transition from research and development to production.
Mr. Bigelow only occasionally gives interviews, and except for Michael N. Gold, the director of Bigelow’s Washington office, the employees almost never speak publicly. A company document titled “Some Important Bigelow Aerospace Cultural Values” implores employees, “Keep your work and the work of your co-workers very private from people outside the company.” (Mr. Gold said that the confidentiality stems from federal regulations designed to protect technological information and that the engineers are busy working.)
The Las Vegas site is hemmed by barbed wire and patrolled by armed guards.
The soundness of the business case is unknown to outsiders. Mr. Bigelow declines to say if he has firm commitments from any countries or companies to rent space on his space stations. In recent years, he has played down the notion that he is building a space hotel for rich tourists, although he says space tourism could provide a part of his business.