NASA announced Wednesday that it would begin using an inflatable balloon-like structure attached to the International Space Station by 2015, opening the door to commercial leases of future outposts, deep-space habitats, and, perhaps, space hotels.

The 13-foot-long, 10.5-foot diameter Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM, is the third orbital prototype from private company Bigelow Aerospace and is being heralded as a major component of future space exploration and the development of commercial space travel.

Founder Robert T. Bigelow, who made his fortune in real estate ventures like the Budget Suites of America hotel chain, rarely gives interviews and has long discredited the notion that he’s building space hotels for well-heeled tourists, but alluded to The New York Times in 2010 that the concept could provide part of his business.

When asked how he would supply food, water and air to future inflatable habitats, Bigelow told the Times space stations were not all that different from hotels.

“I’ve had four decades of serving people, tens and tens and tens of thousands of people, all over the southwest part of the United States,” he said. “I have four decades of building all kinds of things. The principles are the same.”

NASA announced Wednesday that it had awarded a $17.8 million contract to Bigelow’s Las Vegas-based company for the expandable habitat, which is expected to arrive at the space station in 2015 for a two-year demonstration.

"NASA's partnership with Bigelow opens a new chapter in our continuing work to bring the innovation of industry to space, heralding cutting-edge technology that can allow humans to thrive in space safely and affordably,” NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver stated.

The agency said that during the two-year test period, station crew members and ground-based engineers would examine the inflatable and gather performance data.

"The International Space Station is a uniquely suited test bed to demonstrate innovative exploration technologies like the BEAM," saied William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for human exploration and operations at NASA headquarters in Washington. "As we venture deeper into space on the path to Mars, habitats that allow for long-duration stays in space will be a critical capability.”

BEAM is made of materials similar to Kevlar and weighs about one-third as much as similar-sized space modules at 3,000 pounds, making a launch considerably cheaper. It can also house up to a dozen people, twice as many as the International Space Station.

A successful test would put Bigelow one step closer to planned Bigelow-staffed outposts that the company would lease to research organizations, businesses and, according to the Associated Press, wealthy individuals wishing to vacation in orbit.

Bigelow told the AP Wednesday that the NASA connection would enable him to begin selling habitats much larger than the test model, which the company claims will be the first piece of private real estate blasted into space.

“This year is probably going to be our kickoff year for talking to customers,” he said. “We have to show that we can execute what we’re talking about.”

So while Bigelow hasn’t come right out and said it, and while his company’s website clearly states that space hotels are not its intention, few would be surprised if Bigelow Aerospace cashed in on the burgeoning space tourism industry as it prepares for takeoff in the coming years.