A view of the International Space Station. If commercial stations prove cheaper to operate, Nasa will have more money to pursue other goals, like sending astronauts to the moon and Mars. Image Credit: Supplied

North Las Vegas, Nevada: At one end of Bigelow Aerospace’s factory is a mock-up of a gargantuan home for future astronauts. With a unique design — it could be packed into a rocket, then unfurled in space — it would comfortably house a dozen people as a voluminous space station or serve as a building block of a moon base.

“It’ll be a monster spacecraft by any current standards,” said Robert T. Bigelow, the company’s namesake founder.

This is Olympus, named after the mythological home of the Greek deities and a measure of Bigelow’s ambitions for building settlements in space.

Farther down the factory floor is a long, skinny metal structure. This is a developmental version of the spine of a more modest B330 module, which the company actually plans to build. Slight in appearance compared to Olympus, it would still be much less cramped than the metal cans that make up the International Space Station.

More, bigger, better

Bigelow says he is committed to having two B330s ready to launch in 2021, a step that could be a harbinger of the shift from a half-century of human spaceflight as a monopoly of government-run agencies like Nasa to a capitalistic free-for-all. The Trump administration wants to accelerate that transition by ending direct federal financing of the space station after 2024.

“We also want numerous providers that are competing on cost and innovation,” Jim Bridenstine, the Nasa administrator. “We would like to see Nasa become one customer of many customers.”

If commercial stations prove cheaper to operate, Nasa will have more money to pursue other goals, like sending astronauts to the moon and Mars, Bridenstine said.

Too much too soon?

But betting hundreds of millions of dollars on businesses that do not yet exist could turn out to be quick way to lose a fortune. And space travel remains a dangerous avocation that could kill some people who make the trip.

Bigelow, who made his fortune founding Budget Suites of America, conceded earlier this year that he is not certain that he will be able to find customers for his B330s.

If there is no market, “then we would pause”, he said. “They would be sitting on the ground waiting for deployment if the business simply weren’t there.”

Today’s space junk is 
tomorrow’s space habitat

Almost two decades ago, there was a commercial space station for a brief period of time. It was Russian, and an American named Jeffrey Manber ran it. Perhaps it could have succeeded — but Nasa killed it.

“If you wanted to work with the capitalists in space in the 1990s, you worked with the Russians,” Manber said. “If you wanted to work with the socialists, you worked with Nasa.”

After the breakup of the Soviet Union, the Russian space programme was strapped for money and willing to consider ideas. Mir, the Russian space station, was seen as ramshackle and dated, about to be replaced by the bigger, better International Space Station.

But Manber and other entrepreneurs in the US saw Mir, destined to be destroyed, more as a fixer-upper. Energia, Mir’s manufacturer, agreed to partner with the Americans to create MirCorp, a commercial venture that leased the station from Russia’s government.

Reality television series 

The initial pitch from Energia was using the station for research, particularly on pharmaceuticals. Manber knew that possibility was at best years away.

“Quickly, I veered to the market that existed,” he said, “which was entertainment and media, and we could do it, because we were in control.”

MirCorp signed up the first space tourist, Dennis Tito, for a trip to Mir. It sold the idea of a reality television series to NBC, and Mark Burnett, the producer who created Survivor, The Apprentice and Shark Tank, was set to make it. (Tito was indeed the first space tourist, in 2001, but it was to the International Space Station.)

“Had that run, we would have kept Mir up there forever,” Manber said.

But the Russians yielded to Nasa’s insistence on dumping Mir, which was nudged out of orbit and into the Pacific in 2001.