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Last week saw the successful launch of the Space Shuttle, but this week may see something far more relevant to the future of space travel: the launch of a prototype piece of a future orbiting hotel. It comes amid an expected flurry of private launches of small, innovative, and reusable rockets that will make 2006 a watershed year for privately financed rockets.

Taken together, these expected launches could usher in an era of relatively inexpensive space travel. “Even as the shuttle sweeps overhead, we have new items on the real road to practical spaceflight – private market development – popping up,” says Boston-based aerospace engineer and consultant Charles Lurio.

The first of the new companies to launch this year is developing a potential new destination: a hotel in space. Using a design originally conceived as an add-on module for the International Space Station, Las Vegas hotelier Robert Bigelow is planning his first test flight of a subscale version of an inflatable space station module, scheduled to take place by July 14 at a launch pad in Russia. He hopes to have a full-sized orbiting hotel open for tourism by 2012. While some have been skeptical about Bigelow’s plans, partly because of his relative secrecy, Lurio says “by all accounts…this is a serious, technically careful project.”

But the Bigelow launch is only the first in a series of expected private launches. Some of the loudest roars will be heard this fall in New Mexico, at the X Prize Cup. That’s an exposition to showcase developments in new rocket technology, following the 2004 awarding of the $10 million X Prize for private manned rocket launches that reached suborbital altitudes and returned safely. The X Prize Cup will kick off with multiple launches and takeoffs of rocket-powered vehicles.

The Cup will see at least two launches of prototype vertical takeoff, vertical landing rockets that might evolve into a vehicle that could someday land on the moon. These will be made as part of a NASA-sponsored lunar challenge – a challenge that includes a $2.5 million prize for demonstrating a rocket’s ability to take off and land vertically, and move sideways while aloft. Fifty teams have registered for the contest and two are considered almost certain to compete: Armadillo Aerospace of Texas, which was a competitor for the original X Prize, and startup Masten Space Systems of Mojave, CA.

Meanwhile, Space Exploration Corp., or SpaceX, founded by PayPal founder Elon Musk, this October expects to make a second launch attempt of its Falcon 1 rocket, at the Kwajelein Atoll in the Pacific Ocean, after an attempt last spring that failed less than one minute after liftoff (see “Space Tourism or Bust”). When it comes to putting satellites or astronauts into orbit within the next couple of years, as opposed to suborbital flights, SpaceX may be the only real contender.

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