King of the motel setting the pace in the space race

Off all the entrepreneurs - from Amazon chief Jeff Bezos to Ricahrd Branson - trying to make money in space, motel king Robert T. bigelow is the only one to have got anything into orbit.

In 1947, Robert T Bigelow's grandparents were driving through the desert near Las Vegas when a glowing red ball hurtled towards their car before making a sharp turn and vanishing.

It started a lifelong obsession for Bigelow, now 63. He has ploughed millions from a fortune made in hotels into UFO research, talking to hundreds of people who claim to have seen UFOs and sending vets to inspect mutilated cows.

But that was just the start, says Wired magazine. Since 1999, he's been working on plans to build "an inflatable space station... a massive bouncy castle meant to expand as it goes into orbit". If Bigelow fulfils his dream, it will be the first space hotel.

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"It's easy to snicker" at this saucer-chasing billionaire and his "James Bond theatrics". "The Boss" is obsessed with secrecy. He avoids email (too insecure); and voicemail (ditto); and visitors to the Nevada-based HQ of Bigelow Aerospace are attended by an armed guard at all times. Indeed, he was laughed out of town when he started discussing his plans in 1999.

Yet, eight years on, of all the entrepreneurs trying to make money in space including Amazon chief Jeff Bezos, PayPal's Elon Musk, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, and Virgin's Sir Richard Branson Bigelow is "the only one to have actually gotten something into sustained orbit". Moreover, he's built a working spacecraft of flexible materials which even NASA hasn't pulled off. Dismiss him at your peril.

Had Bigelow been a better science student he may never have achieved his dream, says the Wall Street Journal. Born and raised in Las Vegas, he took a bus­iness degree from Arizona State Uni­versity before following his father into real estate. He began developing apart­ments, but quickly made a crucial discovery: "I learned right away that this was a city where people lived on their tips, and I could make more money if I rented by the week".

By 1988, when he launched Budget Suites of America offering furnished living space at modest prices he'd become "king of the temporary stay". His timing was perfect. New­comers in need of temporary digs were flocking to Las Vegas and other fast-growing southwest cities; the privately-owned chain flourished. It now has 18 outlets in three states and is worth at least $1bn.

Bigelow comes across as an old-school gentleman, but has a repu­tation for toughness and was often in court over his ruthless evictions and lock-outs of late rent-payers. Yet 35 years of empire-building was nothing more than a means to an end.

When in 1999 the Wall Street Journal interviewed him, it was struck by the quaintness of his Tudor-style HQ: halls were prowled by cats named Taxes and Writeoff and he sat surrounded by personal memorabilia. When he moved into the space business, he built himself a futuristic new HQ, but the urge for eclectica remains, says Wired.

In the past 16 months, Bigelow Aerospace has shot two Hummer-sized prototypes of his space station into orbit on the back of modified Soviet-era SS-18 missiles. They're still circling the globe, crammed with "a menagerie of ants, cockroaches and scorpions... hundreds of photos, figurines, ornaments, mechanical pencils, Ping-Pong balls, and other keepsakes".

Bigelow's UFO-tracking hobby may continue to raise eyebrows, but, with his "peculiar mixture of ambition, technical sophistication and gimmickry", he's setting the pace in the 21st-century space race.

The unlikely entrepreneurs taking over the space race

Until recently, manned spaceflight was run by government agencies and their contractors, says The New York Times. These days it's Bigelow and other entrepreneurs calling the shots, while government agencies, cash-strapped and dogged by technical disasters, trail behind.

The "NewSpace" pioneers claim to be driven by economics, not politics: space tourism (such as Branson's Virgin Galactic venture) is just one of a host of opportunities, including mineral extraction.

Peter Diamandis, founder of the Ansari X Prize (the $10m competition to put a pilot in space without government financing, won in 2004 by Scaled Composites' SpaceShipOne craft), reckons "the first trillionaires are going to be made in space."

But surely, we're still light years away? asks the FT. New rocketeers spring up by the day, but one thing lacking is financial analysis. "We never learn the business case for space tourism", let alone other applications. Without it, "NewSpace looks more like a group of middle-aged boys determined to have fun... than a vibrant new industry".

Yet Bigelow's progress since 1999 is surely proof of how quickly the industry is moving. The concept of a space hotel grabs headlines, but his station is drawing interest from governments and big companies for other uses, including research and as a launch pad for missions further afield.

When he unveiled his plans earlier this year, they were greeted with a mixture of shock and hope, notes Wired. "Can a real-estate guy actually do this?" asked the Space Foundation president. "Well, Bill Boeing was in the lumber business before he built airplanes. In this industry, no one knows where the next small company with a big idea will come from."