By Cole Hill ( | First Posted: Jan 25, 2013 05:35 PM EST

(Photo : Reuters)

Does the future of tourism lie in space? One company, which specializes in inflatable space stations, is staking much of its business on that very idea.

Earlier this month, NASA announced it would buy an inflatable room for the International Space Station from commercial spaceflight company Bigelow Aerospace, bringing the company one step closer to realizing its ultimate goal of establishing its own private inflatable space stations, reported. NASA will pay Bigelow $17.8 million for the company's Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), which will be attached to the huge orbiting lab as a technology demonstration. The company says the inflatable module should be affixed to the space station in about two years.

Bigelow hopes that its BEAM will help prove the viability of inflatable crew habitats for its future plans to launch low-Earth orbit stations, and, perhaps even some on the moon.

Robert Bigelow, who made his fortune in finance and real estate, and owns the Budget Suites of America hotel chain, founded Bigelow Aerospace in 1999 with his sights set on the highest heavens. The company specializes in expandable habitats that launch compacted and inflate upon reaching space.

These inflatable stations might sound like something from the back of a comic book, or languishing in the product room at Spencer's Gifts, but Bigelow claims they're actually even more secure than the stations we're currently using. Bigelow says its expandable modules provide better on-orbit volume and greater protection from radiation and micrometeoroid strikes than traditional "tin can" designs can provide.

NASA was the first group to seriously pursue the idea of inflatable modules, developing a design, attractively referred to as the TransHab -- a portmanteau of "Transit" and "Habitat," get it? When Congress canceled the program in 2000, Bigelow picked up the slack, licensing patents from NASA and adapting the technology for the company's own goals.

And those goals are ambitious, to say the least: establish private space stations used for numerous purposes, including tourism and research.

"We are primarily focused on providing sovereign clients (individual or groups of nations) and companies with the opportunity to lease space and resources aboard our habitats for a broad array of activities, ranging from turn-key astronautics to conducting ground-breaking and lucrative biotech research," Bigelow Aerospace's website states.

"We offer a way for countries to bolster their human spaceflight programs while at the same time reducing their budgets, or for smaller countries that thought human spaceflight was beyond their financial reach to enjoy capabilities that until now only the wealthiest nations have been able to sponsor."

Bigelow is also developing an even larger inflatable module than the unit planned for the International Space Station, called the BA-330, because it offers 330 cubic meters of usable internal volume. The idea is to eventually link two or more of the BA-330s together to create its first space stations, which have already attracted the interest of numerous clients.

Bigelow reportedly already has signed memoranda of understanding with Australia, Singapore, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Japan, Sweden and Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, all wishing to use its orbiting facilities.

The company plans to offer a variety of rental packages to clients, possibly starting at $28.75 million for an all-inclusive 30-day stay for one astronaut, according to

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