Hotel boss expands - into outer space

ROBERT BIGELOW has a dream: he wants to build a hotel in outer space. A big, fantasy hotel that would orbit the moon and provide earthlings with the ultimate day-trip experience.

Like other space dreamers before him, people are calling Mr Bigelow nuts. Unlike other space dreamers, though, he is putting his money where his mouth is. Up to half a billion dollars, to be precise.

"It is the ultimate fantasy," he says confidently. "We're going to have music and dancing, and rooms full of liquid-crystal display screens that will make you feel like you are on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise."

Mr Bigelow is one of Las Vegas's more prominent real estate magnates, who has made himself rich from an empire of low-rent apartments and long-term occupancy hotels.

Despite years of legal battles with tenants and court cases in which he has been accused of racial discrimination in his eviction practices, he appears to be a deeper thinker than his enemies give him credit for.

He already bankrolls an institute dedicated to UFO research and has donated $3.7m to establish the Bigelow Chair in Consciousness Studies at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas. Now, in conjunction with the Artemis Society, which has dreamed for years of colonising the moon, he has founded a company called Bigelow Aerospace, hiring veterans of both Nasa and the Soviet space programme to turn the dream of a space hotel into a reality.

The company already has 16 employees and plans to expand considerably when its vast headquarters, shaped like an arrow and designed like a spaceship, goes up on the fringe of Las Vegas over the next two years. There the boffins will generally attempt to do what Nasa does, only better and at a fraction of the cost. Or so Mr Bigelow hopes, since the $500m seed money will be all his.

The idea is that the hotel would operate at 40 per cent of normal gravity, giving punters a sense of weightlessness while still enabling them to engage in the sorts of activities they carry out on earth. "We're not just talking about eating and drinking, but mundane things like sneezing and coughing and going to bathroom. Zero G is very user-unfriendly as everything is just in suspension," Mr Bigelow said. A typical voyage to see the craters of the moon from as little as 10 miles away would include 100 passengers and a crew of 50.

Mr Bigelow says he doesn't expect his first lift-off for 15 years at least, but once it happens he anticipates a crowd of scientists, academics, corporate representatives and general daredevils to beat down his door for a place. "It will probably cost around half a million dollars a person for a week, but there will be plenty of institutions and companies willing to offer sponsorship," he predicts.

What about safety? Doesn't this lunar hotel risk turning into a debacle every bit as catastrophic as that other iceberg-breaker, the Titanic? "We certainly wouldn't omit some kind of lifeboat feature," says Mr Bigelow.

And what about the fact that the project seems, well, just a little bit silly? "I don't see anything silly about it at all," he retorts calmly. "This is about the privatisation of aerospace and the future of mankind."