Space entrepreneur Robert Bigelow has been making quiet inroads into the development of Earth orbiting inflatable modules. The privately built and financed habitable structures would be available for research, manufacturing and other uses, including lodging for future space tourists.

Bigelow Aerospace of North Las Vegas, Nevada is now eyeing a launch early next year of its Genesis Pathfinder spacecraft — a shakeout of systems to be used for developing a full-scale inflatable space structure dubbed the Nautilus that is being designed to serve as an orbiting home for space tourists or for research and manufacturing facilities.

The original plan called for launch late this year of the firm’s inflatable design aboard the Falcon 5 – a derivative of the behind-schedule Falcon 1 booster being developed by Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) of El Segundo, California, bankrolled and led by Elon Musk. But delays in getting the Falcon 1 airborne have pushed that date back.

Bigelow now intends to loft Genesis Pathfinder modules early next year using a Dnepr booster under contract with ISC Kosmotras, a Russian and Ukrainian launch services company.

“Over the next few months, and the remainder of this calendar year, Bigelow Aerospace will be laser-focused on the preparation of both our initial and second Genesis Pathfinder spacecrafts for launch in 2006,” said Mike Gold, corporate counsel for Bigelow Aerospace in Washington, D.C.

Bigelow Aerospace engineers are meeting their schedule goal in prepping its first Genesis Pathfinder for the launch target originally slated for year’s end.

“We have spoken to our other launch provider, ISC Kosmotras, and they are amenable to moving the launch schedule up. Therefore, we now anticipate that the first Genesis Pathfinder spacecraft will be launched aboard a Dnepr in the 1st quarter of next year,” Gold said.

Gold said ground tests were recently completed to prove the Genesis Pathfinder’s ability to withstand the various pressures of launch and orbital deployment. Specifically, hardware underwent vibration tests, load analyses and was exposed to vacuum. The testing was performed at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, Gold said.

“The results were excellent, and helped bolster our confidence in regard to the Genesis design and the robust nature of inflatable space habitat technology,” Gold added. There will be additional ground testing conducted later this year, he said, in the form of a “fit-check” to support the smooth and safe integration of the Genesis Pathfinder with the Dnepr launcher.

The silo-launched Dnepr rocket is a retired and converted R 36-M ballistic rocket, also known in the West as the SS-18 missile.

Robert Bigelow, owner of the Budget Suites of America Hotel Chain, among other ventures, is investing his own money in the inflatable space module idea.

At launch, Genesis will have a mass of roughly 1,360 kilograms and be 4.6 meters long and 1.9 meters in diameter. The structure is designed to double in diameter once in orbit.

The full scale Nautilus is expected to tip the scales at between 20,000 to 23,000 kilograms . Once fully-inflated Nautilus would be 13.7 meters long and 6.7 meters in diameter with 330 cubic meters of usable volume.

Bigelow Aerospace also is the chief financial backer of the $50 million America’s Space Prize. Offered late last year, the prize is meant to spur the growth of privately-built Earth orbiting spaceships. As one of a set of prize rules, a winning design must demonstrate the ability to dock with Bigelow Aerospace’s inflatable space habitat, and stay docked to the complex for up to six months.

A key ambition of the cash reward is to break the monopoly on crew transport to space currently held by Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft.

Since America’s Space Prize was announced, Bigelow Aerospace has received many responses from a wide variety of entities, Gold said.

“Both small entrepreneurial groups as well as large traditional aerospace companies have communicated their interest in potentially pursuing America’s Space Prize. We can’t predict how many of these groups will eventually take the next step to formally enter the competition and begin vehicle development, but, thus far, we’ve been pleased with the level of response,” Gold concluded.

Leonard David has been reporting on space activities for nearly 50 years. He is the 2010 winner of the prestigious National Space Club Press Award and recently co-authored with Apollo 11’s Buzz Aldrin the book “Mission to Mars — My Vision for Space...