The Space Station Race

Russia and the U.S. are once again locked in a battle to reach space—but this time, the goal isn't the moon. It's the world's first commercial space station. Russian companies Orbital Technologies and RSC Energia announced plans this week to launch the first commercial space station by 2015 or 2016. That's direct competition for Las Vegas-based Bigelow Aerospace, which also plans to have a private space station ready for customers by 2015.

When launched, the station built by Orbital and RSC (the Russian Federal Space Agency's largest contractor) will fly in orbit approximately 62 miles from the International Space Station. Soyuz spacecraft will shuttle crews back and forth from the commercial space station. The commercial hub is expected to have a design life of 15 years.

The space station planned by Orbital (pictured) won't just be for tourists—it will also act as a "hub for commercial activity, scientific research and development in low Earth orbit." Orbital claims that it already has contracts with a number of industry customers involved in medical research and protein crystallization, geographic imaging, remote sensing, and materials processing.

Bigelow's inflatable space station modules will also be available to tourists, scientists, and corporations. And apparently, astronauts will act as housekeepers for the station's first guests. In a statement to SPACE.com, Bigelow Aerospace founder Robert Bigelow said: "Our astronauts will take care of housekeeping chores.They'll make sure everything is totally sanitary and very accommodating. That's a big job in itself."

Ultimately, as long as they're both successful, it doesn't really matter whether Bigelow or Orbital wins the space race. There is more than enough room for two commercial space stations—as long as prices aren't too steep for customers.

Ariel Schwartz can be reached on Twitter or by email.

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