On the Las Vegas Strip, home of the biggest and most extravagant hotels in the world, shell-shocked tourists file past one stunningly ostentatious display after another. In the desert city, water says wealth like nothing else, and there’s a lake of it in front of the Bellagio, with fountains blasting 240 feet in the air in time to Broadway show tunes. Just up the street, the Mirage demonstrates that it has money to burn with a fiery volcano erupting from the top of a 119,000-gallon waterfall.
Tucked away on the service roads behind the Strip, the humble Budget Suites of America hotels are, in contrast, nearly invisible to tourists. Catering not to revelers but to the hordes of migrants looking for quick work in America’s tourism epicenter, Budget Suites eschews flashy displays of any sort, flaunting instead affordable weekly rates and the homely comforts of laundry rooms and kitchenettes.
Still, when it comes to grand ambition, the impresarios of the Strip are mere pikers next to Budget Suites owner Robert Bigelow. For his next hotel enterprise, Bigelow is looking beyond the bright lights of Las Vegas—beyond Earth’s atmosphere, in fact. He is actively engaged in an effort to build the planet’s first orbiting space hotel. Bargain-basement room rate: $1 million a night. For its water show, this hotel will have all of Earth’s blue oceans flying past its windows at 17,500 miles an hour. Guests on board the 330-cubic-meter station (about the size of a three-bedroom house) will learn weightless acrobatics, marvel at the ever-changing face of the home planet, and, for half of every
90-minute orbit, gaze deep into a galaxy ablaze with stars.
The public has seen this vision for decades—another hopeless dreamer’s space fantasy. But here there’s a difference: Bigelow is betting $500 million of his personal fortune that he can make it come true. He has hired veteran space-travel engineers to perfect the technology, he has produced nearly launch-ready hardware for testing, and he’s floating a $50-million prize to entice other companies to create a safe, reliable orbital space vehicle to transport guests to the front door—or rather, the airlock. Even five years ago, this plot would have seemed utterly implausible. But with Burt Rutan’s recent Ansari X Prize triumph—his company, Scaled Composites, won a $10-million competition for the successful, repeated launch of a manned suborbital space vehicle—and the subsequent creation of Virgin Galactic to capitalize on Rutan’s technology for tourist spaceflights, Bigelow’s project provides an intriguing new twist in the development of a commercial spaceflight industry.
Robert Bigelow is a trim 60 years old with a full head of salt-and-pepper hair and a matching mustache. He shepherds visitors through his 50-acre, three-building, 56-employee R&D facility, Bigelow Aerospace, on the outskirts of Las Vegas with the quiet confidence of a man who knows exactly what he is doing. “It’s a gamble,” he says of his project, the world’s first private space station. “It’s a huge gamble.” He smiles faintly as he says it, as though he enjoys the sheer outrageousness of his own project. Then, too, he’s no stranger to high-stakes gambling; he was raised in Las Vegas, after all, surrounded by the city’s kitschy, instant-gratification, money-fixated culture.
Yet he’s also insatiably curious about spirituality and the nature of the universe, and he possesses an unearthly patience. Las Vegas may be an unlikely incubator for these qualities, but that’s exactly what it was for Bigelow as he grew up. In the 1950s, nuclear explosions at the nearby Nevada Test Site lit his street at night with artificial daylight—casting light on his mortality, as well. In later years, rumors circulated of a secret government program to study a crashed extraterrestrial spaceship and its occupants. And although he never saw anything himself, Bigelow knew people who swore that they had had unexplainable encounters with possible extraterrestrials; his own grandparents even had a UFO experience. He couldn’t guess what it all meant, but he developed a burning desire to find out. What was our place in the universe? Were we alone in it?
Bigelow was just 15 years old when he vowed to devote his life to helping establish a permanent human presence in space. It would take money, he knew—lots of it. And so he began to build a very practical foundation for his fantastic idea: He followed his father into real estate, studying that and banking at Arizona State University. After graduating in 1967, he launched his career first as a broker, and soon began buying small rental properties. His first construction project, in 1970, was a 40-unit apartment house. Throughout the 1970s and ’80s he built dozens of apartment buildings and motels in and around Las Vegas, and in 1988 he founded Budget Suites of America.
At about the same time, he began pouring millions of dollars into UFO and paranormal research, eventually creating his National Institute for Discovery Science (NIDS) in 1995. None of this activity was a secret, but he did keep mum about his ultimate goal, the driving motivation behind his expanding empire—telling no one until the time came to set the plan in motion. “I didn’t even tell my wife,” he says. “She never knew. Because it’s possible that that kind of dream would never happen.” The ideal moment arrived in 1999 when Bigelow, now sitting on a fortune, got wind of a NASA program for a radical new space station.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.