UFO enthusiast Robert Bigelow Bets $500 Million on Space Hotel

700_dc90024ca226e2ddad1cad758201d345Robert Bigelow got rich off budget hotel suites that start at $189 a week. Now they are funding his dream of building inflatable space habitats with rates topping $400,000 a day.

For the Las Vegas businessman, his desire to build low orbital dwellings is the ultimate gamble. He has bet $500 million of his own money on his closely held venture, Bigelow Aerospace LLC — five times what billionaire Elon Musk invested in his own space company.

“If you don’t have bucks, there’s no Buck Rogers,” said Bigelow, 68, echoing a phrase from the film, “The Right Stuff,” about the early days of the U.S. spaceflight program.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration this month announced a $17.8 million contract to Bigelow Aerospace for an inflatable room that will be attached to a port on the International Space Station sometime in 2015. Astronauts will use the prototype for two years, allowing NASA to test the technology for “pennies on the dollar,” said Lori Garver, the agency’s deputy administrator.

Bigelow has spent about half of his stake. He may never recoup the investment, according to Jeff Foust, an analyst at Futron Corp., a Bethesda, Maryland-based technology consulting firm.

“Are there enough customers out there to make this a worthwhile venture?” Foust said. “It’s yet to be seen.”

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