Building zero-G boomtowns
There's money to be made in orbit. Research, energy, hotels, even sports arenas are coming--a lot sooner than you think.
By Georgia Flight

(Business 2.0) - The final frontier has been mapped out, and it's almost time to open the business district. In the next 15 years, we could see zero-G R&D labs for Big Pharma and tech companies, solar-power satellites saving Earth from fossil-fuel addiction, and sports arenas hosting events that make the X Games look tame.

Fanciful plan, real profits

It seems fanciful, but the profits will be very real--as much as $115 billion in the next 15 years. And if you want to cash in earlier, one tycoon is offering $50 million to anyone who can deliver tourists to his soon-to-launch orbital hotel.

Gene Meyers, industrial engineer and founder of Space Island Group, based in West Covina, Calif., has a three-stage business plan that experts consider highly promising. "Everyone familiar with flight concepts agrees that SIG's plans are feasible," says Lynn Harper, head of integrative studies at NASA Ames Research Center. "It's one of the most exciting developments I've seen in my career."

Step one is industrial research. A gravity-free environment, as NASA knows, allows computer-chip crystals and biotech proteins to grow like crazy. Companies like Genentech and 3M, which spend hundreds of millions in R&D every year, are interested in more zero-G experiments.

As early as 2008, SIG claims, it will send up rockets with empty fuel tanks that can be refitted as commercial versions of Skylab. "These tanks cost about $50 million each, and right now they're thrown away," Meyers says. He believes that leasing the tanks to commercial interests will make his venture profitable by 2009--and lead to weekly launches by 2015.

Launching alternative energies

Which, if it happens, would be a good start. But that's nothing compared with step two in the SIG plan: solar-power satellites. These huge arrays of solar cells, up to three miles across, would collect sunlight and beam it down via microwaves to antennas on Earth to be converted into electricity.

With the support of the U.S. Department of Commerce and the World Bank, SIG is aggressively promoting this as an alternative to fossil fuels for fast-growing nations. Glenn Roberts, director of the Bakersfield, Calif., office of the U.S. Commercial Service, a division of the DOC, is enthusiastic. "The Indian government has huge power needs, and they are open to it," he says. "With the right funding, this is really going to take off."

Meyers is making presentations to the Chinese and Indian governments next month, offering 2 trillion kilowatt-hours of electricity from 2012 to 2025 for $200 billion--a fixed price of 10 cents per kilowatt-hour, comparable to the baseline U.S. average. An advance of 5 percent of that, he says, would cover all his development and launch costs.

Not that governments are the only ones with deep pockets--that $10 billion price tag would hardly be out of the reach of energy companies that stand to profit (consider ExxonMobil's $9.9 billion in profits last quarter alone) or the big guys that already know how to catch some sun in space (Boeing makes most of the solar cells for the space shuttle and space station).

Inflatable habitats

Then there's the space hotel business. Bob Bigelow, founder of the Budget Suites of America chain, founded Bigelow Aerospace in Las Vegas in 1999 with the goal of developing inflatable habitats for Earth orbit. Supposedly, these floating suites will self-inflate with breathable air and provide about 900 square feet of living space. They could then link together for a larger hotel experience. Bigelow is reportedly sinking $500 million of his fortune into the venture.

The project is shrouded in secrecy, however, and Bigelow hasn't given interviews for the better part of a year in preparation for the company's first test-launch. "We are planning one launch in the first quarter of 2006 and another later in the year," confirms Mike Gold, Bigelow's corporate counsel.

Bigelow is also offering $50 million for a competition he's dubbed America's Space Prize, which will be awarded to the first team to build a vehicle that can successfully dock with the Bigelow Space Habitat for six months or orbit Earth twice in 60 days. The deadline: Jan. 10, 2010, the day he plans to open his hotel.

Space tourists and workers will need a little entertainment beyond chasing M&Ms. That's where stage three of the SIG plan comes in: turning a fuel tank into a zero-G sports arena. "I told Fox Sports about this," Meyers says. "They said, 'You'll get a bigger audience than the Olympics!'"

Two major search engines have invited Meyers to make presentations. If one of them signed an exclusive agreement to be the portal, Meyers enthuses, "we could launch competitions to design the rules for the sport, show live feeds, just generate a ton of traffic."

Even those stuck on Earth could get in on the fun. Astrophysicist Brian Laubscher proposes launching hundreds of cheap, tiny, wirelessly controlled spacecraft. Consumers could buy time controlling them on the Internet.

"They could hunt each other, battle, and chase asteroids," he says. Iain Beveridge, an engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, has a similar idea: "Sell time driving Moon rovers run on solar power." For entrepreneurial ideas, the sky is no longer the limit.

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Most stock quote data provided by BATS. Market indices are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer.

Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Factset: FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved.

Chicago Mercantile Association: Certain market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved.

Dow Jones: The Dow Jones branded indices are proprietary to and are calculated, distributed and marketed by DJI Opco, a subsidiary of S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC and have been licensed for use to S&P Opco, LLC and CNN. Standard & Poor's and S&P are registered trademarks of Standard & Poor’s Financial Services LLC and Dow Jones is a registered trademark of Dow Jones Trademark Holdings LLC. All content of the Dow Jones branded indices © S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC 2014 and/or its affiliates.