getting man back to the moon and then to Mars. NASA awarded Lockheed-Martin the contract to build the Shuttle's badly needed replacement, the crew exploration vehicle now known as Orion.

Going to the moon is great if you're NASA and have billions to spend, but what about space tourists? One of the most fascinating developments is the underreported story of Robert Bigelow, founder of Budget Suites of America and pioneer of what may be the world's first orbiting hotel.

At press time, orbiting far overhead, is Genesis-I, a quarter-scale test module for the space hotel. Built by Bigelow Aerospace, the module was launched in July on a Russian rocket. Bigelow's plan includes a $50 million award to the company best demonstrating how to bring passengers to his space hotel. With a few launches lined up for further testing of modules, Bigelow recently announced his company's plans to launch a complete, inhabitable space hotel within five years.

The notion of a space hotel, once seemingly far-fetched, is on the verge of reality. Aerospace companies like Rocketplane Kistler and SpaceDev are vying to get their spacecraft designated as the official "taxi" to Bigelow's hotel.

"We're working with companies like Bob Bigelow's aerospace corporation, which intends to provide a destination in space -- an orbiting space complex," said Bob Seto, Rocketplane Kistler's vice president of engineering systems and analysis. "That then allows people with interest in this to go into orbit and go into the activities he's planning for his space complex. It's more than a hotel. It's a set of places where experimentation for development of biomedical products, etc. People can then go up there perhaps for vacation, but perhaps can go up there for furthering industry as well. When you start going beyond that, to the resources of the moon, it's mind-boggling. This is just the start, and it's a huge amount of potential."

Not long ago, you might have been ridiculed for advocating building -- in the middle of the Nevada desert -- a giant pyramid, a medieval castle and a quarter-scale model of New York City; then stuffing them to the gills with slot machines, hotel rooms and restaurants. Similarly there is bound to be a chorus of voices decrying the construction of spaceports no matter where they're located, warning that commercial space travel is too risky and too expensive. But, if it were cheap and easy and safe, we'd already be doing it.

Chad Vander Veen  | 

Chad Vander Veen is the former editor of FutureStructure.