I KNEW THIS WAS COMING, but it’s still cool:

Private space exploration took a potentially significant step forward this week as Nevada-based Bigelow Aerospace announced plans to send a series of inflatable space stations into orbit over the next decade.

The spacecraft, initially designed by NASA for use with the International Space Station, would be available to train astronauts from nations not currently active in space, as well as companies that could manufacture unique products in weightlessness. . . .

The announcement comes at a heady time for private space entrepreneurs. The rocket company SpaceX, founded by Pay Pal billionaire Elon Musk, had its most successful test launch to date last month. Voters in New Mexico this month passed a referendum to raise taxes to help build a spaceport for Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic space tourism company.

Bigelow already has a prototype of its planned station in orbit and is scheduled to launch a second on a Russian rocket later this month. The prototype Genesis II will launch from Orenberg, Russia, and will carry a payload that includes a Madagascar giant hissing cockroach, scorpions, an ant farm, and an internal camera to watch their acclimation to space. The first Bigelow vessel designed to house a human crew, called Sundancer, is now in development and is scheduled to launch by the end of 2010.

I wish them luck.