By Irene Klotz
LAS CRUCES, New Mexico (Reuters) - A start-up space company building inflatable habitats for commercial and government lease has laid off half its staff because of delays developing space taxis needed to fly people to the outposts, the company president said on Wednesday.
Robert Bigelow, a hotel entrepreneur and founder of Las Vegas-based Bigelow Aerospace, had hoped space taxis, also needed by NASA to fly astronauts to the International Space Station, would be available by early 2015.
NASA is backing development of commercial human spaceships by four firms, including Boeing Co, Bigelow's partner in its space habitats program.
Those spacecraft, however, are not expected to be ready to fly until at least 2016, extending the amount of time the United States is dependent on Russia to fly crews to the space station, at a cost of more than $50 million per person, and delaying the debut of Bigelow's commercial outposts, which need spaceships to ferry customers to and from orbit.
The company plans a series of inflatable space habitats that can be used for research, tourism, manufacturing and other activities.
With the retirement of the space shuttles this summer, only Russia and China have the ability to fly people into orbit. China is not a member of the space station program, a $100 billion project of 16 nations.
NASA's goal is to turn over station crew ferry flights to a U.S. company before the end of 2016. Russia charges more than $50 million per person for rides on its Soyuz capsules.
"We no longer can say with some certainty when the transportation is going to be there," said Bigelow, who spoke with reporters after a speech at the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight under way this week in Las Cruces.
Bigelow has agreements with the United Kingdom, Netherlands, Australia, Singapore, Japan, Sweden and the United Arab Emirates for use of its space habitats. The company already has flown and tested two prototypes in orbit.
But uncertainty about when space transportation will be available, coupled with global economic concerns, prompted some of the clients to postpone their programs. Bigelow, in turn, pared its 115-member workforce down to 51, Bigelow said.
The company has a production facility in North Las Vegas, Nevada, to manufacture the habitats.
(Editing by Tom Brown; Editing by Gary Hill)