An experimental inflatable spacecraft bankrolled by real estate magnate Robert Bigelow rocketed into orbit Wednesday to test technology that could be used to fulfill his dream of building a commercial space station.
The Genesis I satellite flew aboard a converted Cold War ballistic missile from Russia's southern Ural Mountains at 6:53 p.m. Moscow time. It was boosted about 320 miles above Earth minutes after launch, according to the Russian Strategic Missile Forces.
The launch was a first for the startup Bigelow Aerospace, founded by Bigelow, who owns the Budget Suites of America hotel chain. Bigelow is among several entrepreneurs attempting to break into the fledging manned commercial spaceflight business.
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Despite the successful launch, significant hurdles remain.
Mission controllers were awaiting word of the spacecraft's health. Once that's confirmed, it will begin the tricky job of ballooning itself to twice its pre-launch width in a process that could last several hours.
Bigelow hopes to use inflation technology to build an expandable orbital outpost made up of several Genesis-like modules strung together like sausage links that could serve as a space hotel, science lab or even a sports arena.
"We're ecstatic. We're just elated," Bigelow said in a telephone interview from Las Vegas. "We have a sense of being on a great adventure."
Bigelow has committed $500 million toward building a commercial space station by 2015. So far, $75 million has been spent on the project.
Because Wednesday's unmanned mission was experimental, Bigelow said he was prepared for problems.
"I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if we have a number of different systems fail," he said on the eve of the launch. "I would hope that we have some success."
The watermelon-shaped Genesis I is a one-third scale prototype of the commercial space station to which the company eventually hopes to fly humans.
Unlike the rigid aluminum international space station, Genesis I consists of a flexible outer shell and is layered with tough material such as Kevlar, which is found in bulletproof police vests, to withstand flying space debris.
The 2,800-pound Genesis I measured 14 feet long and 4 feet wide at launch and was to inflate to twice that width in orbit. It carried photos of Bigelow employees and insects that scientists hope to study to determine how well they survive the flight.
Equipped with a dozen cameras to be aimed at the Earth, the spacecraft will circle the planet for at least five years while scientists study its durability.
"We know very, very little about the actual engineering and performance of these systems. As a matter of fact, we really know nothing," Bigelow corporate counsel Mike Gold said earlier this year.
Bigelow Aerospace plans to launch several prototypes this decade. Future missions will test docking among spacecraft, but the maiden Genesis flight will primarily focus on the inflation process.
Inflatable technology isn't new. NASA researched the concept in the 1990s for a potential trip to Mars, but later abandoned it after determining that the huge pop-proof balloons were too costly. Bigelow Aerospace essentially picked up the project.
This fall, Bigelow Aerospace hopes to launch Genesis II, which will carry mementos from the public for $295 apiece. Over the next several years, the company plans to test larger prototype spacecraft, including a full-scale mock-up slated to launch in 2012.
The cost of flying to Bigelow's planned space habitat is expected to be less than the reported $20 million to go aboard the international space station.
Other private firms trying to break into the commercial space business are designing suborbital spaceships to fly paying tourists.
To ensure that a vehicle can reach Bigelow's planned outpost, the entrepreneur created the $50 million America's Space Prize to spur development of a private orbital spacecraft that can dock with his inflatable space station.