NORTH LAS VEGAS, Nev. -- The biggest gambler around these parts is not a high roller going all in with a pair of deuces. He's a real estate magnate who's betting $500 million that he can open the first inflatable hotel in outer space.
As far out as the idea sounds, multimillionaire Robert Bigelow has already launched a one-third scale model of his inflatable space module called Genesis I. The spacecraft was launched in July atop a Russian rocket.
"I'm on cloud nine," Bigelow said at his production facility here, where his team of engineers was tracking the spacecraft after it inflated and entered an orbit 348 miles above Earth.
A second launch is in the works, Bigelow said. A full-scale module is scheduled for orbit within five years and in less than a decade, paying guests could be checking in.
By Earth standards, they won't be getting much for their estimated $8 million weeklong vacation package: no Jacuzzi, no room service, no mints on the pillow.
But then, the best hotel in Paris can't match the view of Earth spinning below as the sun rises and sets every 90 minutes.
Bigelow, a trim 62 with swept-back salt-and-pepper hair, is part of a new breed of entrepreneurs out to break the government monopoly on space exploration. Along with aerospace entrepreneurs Burt Rutan, Elon Musk and others, Bigelow believes there's no reason capitalism can't work in zero gravity.
Though Rutan and Musk are building rockets and space planes, Bigelow believes his inflatable space modules could serve as hotels, conference centers, even sporting complexes where hang-time would be measured in minutes instead of seconds.
Bigelow, who made his fortune with the Budget Suites of America hotel chain, acknowledges there are some big hurdles. Chief among them is the economics of rocketing people into space. So far, only the super-rich, such as multimillionaire investor Dennis Tito, have been able to afford the $20 million price tag for a stay at the International Space Station.
Bigelow's business plan depends on finding a cheaper route to space. Musk, the founder of Space Exploration Technologies Corp. in El Segundo, Calif., also known as SpaceX, is among those working on the problem. But his first test rocket, Falcon 1, failed to reach orbit this year.
"The technical challenges are huge," Bigelow said. "There are plenty of things to worry about."
Some space activists, while praising Bigelow's entrepreneurial spirit, are skeptical that private industry can become a major player in space exploration, at least in the near future.
"People have to have more than a business plan," said Louis Friedman, executive director of the Planetary Society in Pasadena, Calif. "They have to have a failure plan, because they're going to experience failure. Things could go wrong, and my experience is they generally do."
Bigelow's achievements have nevertheless brought a sense of momentum to the small but growing commercial spaceflight industry.
"History likes seeing someone who antes up," said Rick Tumlinson, an author and co-founder of the Space Frontier Foundation in Nyack, N.Y.
Even among the wealthy iconoclasts in the commercial spacecraft industry, Bigelow is a wild card. He worked under a tight veil of secrecy for years before his recent launch. He's never sent an e-mail, feeling it isn't secure enough.
He's hired armed guards - whose uniforms have patches of an alien face on the shoulders - to patrol his 50-acre Bigelow Aerospace complex, surrounded by a tall fence.
Despite his Las Vegas-casual attire of tennis shoes, slacks and Hawaiian shirts, he described himself as "intense and extremely detailed."
He glanced at an assistant sitting at attention nearby. "But I'm getting better at controlling my temper."
He also may be the only space capitalist who believes in UFOs and out-of-body experiences. "I'm an anomaly," he said. "I believe in the existence of presences we can't explain."
As he was growing up in Las Vegas, his grandparents claimed to have had a close encounter. They were driving along a road on 12,000-foot-tall Mount Charleston outside town, Bigelow said, when they saw a UFO coming at them, glowing and radiating colors.
"They expected they would die," he said. His grandfather swerved off the road and looked out the back window to watch the object take off at a steep angle.
This helped stir his interest in unraveling the mysteries of the universe. While a teenager, he decided that he would get involved in space exploration. Knowing it was expensive, he figured he'd have to make a fortune.
Looking around, it was easy to see where the real money was being made in Las Vegas. New casinos were rising out of the desert, and the suburbs were exploding. Bigelow chose real estate, building apartment buildings and motels until he started Budget Suites.
Today, the company has 17 hotels in Nevada, Arizona and Texas with one- and two-bedroom units with kitchens renting from $79 per day.