Spaced out

Bigelow, NASA now working together on space hotel

When a tiny, odd-shaped rocket contraption dubbed SpaceShipOne floated down to the Mojave Desert last month after a 62-mile-high jaunt into space, it was a milestone in the commercial development of the wild blue yonder. Aviation wizard Burt Rutan, the designer of SpaceShipOne, was proud to have achieved space flight without accepting any government dollars.

Las Vegas businessman Bob Bigelow can relate.

A mere five years ago, Bigelow, owner of the Budget Suites of America hotel chain, announced his intention to get into the space race. Not many people paid attention or gave him much of a chance. But 16 months from now, Bigelow’s first creation is scheduled for blast-off into a low orbit above the earth. If it works as planned, the development of space will never be the same.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that Bigelow received a VIP invitation to the debut of SpaceShipOne. He not only knows Burt Rutan well, but also knows that the future of Bigelow Aerospace may be inextricably linked to the success of people like Rutan. Rutan and 25 other groups around the world are competing for the X Prize, a $10 million award that will go to the first team to build a private, reusable spaceship.

Assuming that some of these spacecraft really do work, they will need someplace to go once they get into orbit. That’s where Bigelow comes in.

The NASA turnaround
Few journalists have been allowed inside the secure confines of the 50-acre “space campus” Bigelow Aerospace has built in North Las Vegas, and with good reason. Bigelow has long shunned any kind of publicity for himself, and since he is investing up to $500 million of his personal fortune into the aerospace company, he’s reluctant to give away too much information to potential competitors. It’s the same reason his facility is surrounded by fences, gates, cameras and an imposing security force made up of ex-military types.

“Now, though, it may be time to talk,” Bigelow said. “NASA thinks so too.”

The space hotel that Bigelow Aerospace is developing at its North Las Vegas facility may become the building block for all future space stations.

Bigelow’s new relationship with NASA represents a stunning turnaround. As few as two years ago, Bigelow had little good to say about NASA. He accused the government’s space agency of being an impediment to the commercial development of space and delivered a blistering indictment of NASA’s many failures. That was then. Now, it appears NASA has taken many of Bigelow’s criticisms to heart.

“Business as usual isn’t going to work,” said NASA chief Sean O’Keefe in early May. O’Keefe told a presidential commission that NASA would have to undergo a complete transformation, including a cultural makeover, if Americans are ever going to achieve a permanent presence in space, including possible missions to Mars and the moon. A key part of the new strategy is the reliance on private companies to do much of the work, but without NASA’s typically bloated contracts.

Bigelow has not only buried the hatchet with the space agency, he also finds himself in partnership with NASA. Bigelow Aerospace has signed three “Space Act agreements” with NASA. These agreements provide for an ongoing exchange of personnel and technology, the joint testing of Bigelow projects at NASA facilities and the transfer of NASA patents to Bigelow.

“NASA has hitched its wagon to us,” Bigelow said. “They’re here every other week now because this is the technology that they will depend on in the future.”

Bigelow Aerospace is pursuing what it hopes will become the building block of all future space stations, near-Earth outposts and long-range missions. It’s an inflatable module that could become the space habitat of the future. NASA had its own inflatable-habitat program, called Transhab, but cancelled the program years ago because of budget problems and technical challenges. Bigelow picked up where NASA left off and in just a few years has taken the technology far beyond the government’s original program.

“If we’re going to get to Mars or go back to the moon within our lifetimes, it’s going to be this technology,” said NASA’s Glenn Miller, assistant director of engineering at Johnson Space Center, during a recent visit to Bigelow Aerospace. “In the history of the space program, we’ve always been limited to metallic structures and pressurized volumes, which is a problem because of the weight. It’s not cheap to get it up there. Inflatable technology is much lighter and much cheaper. If we can get more up there at a cheaper price, we can open up space to commercialization and exploration. This is critical to our getting back to the moon.”

A hotel in space
The key to Bigelow’s success—or failure—is cost. It’s always been his intention to bring tight-fisted business principles to the aerospace industry, and his inflatable-habitat technology seems to epitomize that approach. Two years ago, Bigelow said that if he cuts the cost of space habitat “only” in half, he will have failed. His inflatable modules need to achieve a quantum leap in cost reduction if they are going to make the impact Bigelow fully expects.

“The technology itself isn’t that complicated,” Bigelow said. “But we’ve had to reinvent the process. Instead of handing out fat contracts to all of the usual suspects, the big contractors, we’re doing this on our own, looking for the best deals we can find. The big contractors have been charging NASA 50 times what something costs. They did it because they could get away with it. Not us. We haven’t accepted a dime of government money.”

Bob Bigelow estimates he can eventually reduce the cost of a space trip to an affordable price—between $50,000 and $100,000.

To understand just how revolutionary Bigelow’s projected cost savings might be, consider the International Space Station. By 2010, this troubled project will have cost a total of $50 billion, will be 10 years behind schedule and will contain about half of the habitable work space that had been planned, around 550 cubic meters. Just two of Bigelow’s planned modules will exceed the entire work space of the ISS—and cost only around $100 million apiece. Two hundred million dollars vs. $50 billion is quite a difference, enough to entice other private companies into the new space race.

“More space at a cheaper price allows companies to do large-scale things,” NASA’s Miller said. “Instead of boxes, you get rooms—for experiments, for equipment, for manufacturing. The next generation of medicines, the next generation of materials and technology could all come from the zero-gravity environment. This is where people are going to make a lot of money. And that will really accelerate the science and create direct benefits for humans on Earth.”

One of Bigelow’s stated goals is the development of the first space hotel. A hotel in space would mean that Burt Rutan and other companies that are working to build reusable spacecraft, perhaps as part of a future “space airline,” would have someplace to take their passengers. (Bigelow and Rutan have talked about working together, according to well-placed sources.) Bigelow is thus providing his own incentive to all the reusable rocket companies to step up the pace.

While a night at the Bigelow MoonPort would certainly be more expensive than, say, a stay at Budget Suites, there is no shortage of well-heeled space enthusiasts who would be willing to pay big bucks for the adventure of a lifetime. A recent survey by an adventure travel agency found at least 10,000 people who would be willing to shell out $1 million apiece for a stay in space. Bigelow figures he can eventually get the cost of a space trip to a far more affordable level, in the $50,000-$100,000 range, which is about the cost of a really good car.

Bigelow has put a lot of thought into what space tourists would do while they’re up there—everything from laser light shows on the dark side of the moon and phone calls placed to envious friends back home to short space walks.

The one attraction he doesn’t like to talk about is the chance for his guests to get a little “space nookie.” Since humans are inherently horny, there is no question that some space tourists would take the trip just so they could join the 62-Mile-High Club. Bigelow acknowledges this likelihood, but worries that salacious visions of space sex will detract attention from the more serious applications of his technology.

Mars or bust
Inside the Bigelow Aerospace plant, all sorts of odd experiments have played out over the past few years. Several times a year, the company puts one of its model modules to the ultimate test. Using water and air pressure, engineers stretch the modules to their absolute limits, straining them until they blow up. Considering the cost of the individual modules, it’s sort of like driving a Mercedes off a cliff every time they do it.

The engineers still haven’t decided what the modules will be made of. Whatever the material, it will have to be lightweight and very strong. They’ve already looked at everything from traditional sail fabric, like the stuff used on sailing ships, to more exotic materials such as metallic glass. Amazingly, scientists believe these lighter materials will result in space habitats that are even stronger and safer than the metal shells that have been used in every spacecraft to date.

Bigelow Aerospace proposes to kickstart a new space race with its revolutionary designs.

Bigelow and his engineers believe the lightweight habitats they are building will provide better protection against dangers such as micro-meteorites and cosmic radiation than do current metallic hulls. If they are proven correct, his creations could become the centerpiece of a permanent base on the moon. They could also provide workspace and living quarters for a manned mission to Mars. The advantage of having crew quarters that are less cramped is more than just a matter of comfort.

“You would have a much larger area in which people could exercise. More area would allow us to build centrifuges that would reduce the effects of zero gravity on the human body,” said Miller of NASA acknowledging that the conquest of safety concerns would make missions to Mars or the moon far more likely than they are now.

So when do we go?
When Bigelow’s engineers told him they needed a high-tech valve that would serve as a key component of the life-support system on board the inflatable modules, Bigelow went shopping. American aerospace giants were willing to sell him the valve at costs that ranged from $300,000 to $1 million. Bigelow found and purchased the same valve from a European company. The cost for the identical valve? A mere $5,000.

“This is pretty typical of what’s wrong with the American aerospace industry and with American companies in general,” Bigelow said. “Whether it’s steel or automobiles or textiles, Americans have priced themselves out of the world market. Now our dominance in space technology has evaporated as well. We don’t have a space shuttle or a space plane, and our American launchers are simply not affordable for the delivery of any large systems.”

Bigelow was able to purchase a life support system from a German company. The complete system cost only $1.3 million. If he had purchased the same system from American companies, it would have cost in the neighborhood of $100 million, he said. It isn’t hard to understand why European, Chinese and other space efforts are now eclipsing those of the United States, why commercialization of space has been stymied, and why NASA has called for a shakeup in how our nation conducts its space business.

Bigelow isn’t wasting any time in getting his gear up there. His plant is building 13 models of his Genesis Pathfinder module, which is one-third the size of the full-scale Nautilus, the model that could become the standard habitat for future space programs. The first Genesis model is scheduled for a launch into space in November 2005. Bigelow signed a contract with Space X, a private rocket company in California.

A second launch of a Pathfinder is slated for April 2006. For that launch, Bigelow signed an agreement with the Russians. The company, Kosmotras, plans to use converted Russian SS-18 missiles (minus their nuclear warheads) to carry payloads into space. Kosmotras could carry as many as six Pathfinders into space—if Bigelow receives approval from the U.S. State Department.

If everything works as planned, and no unforeseen engineering problems are discovered with Pathfinder, the first Genesis—the full module, not a model— will be sent up in late 2008. From there, it’s all downhill … or is that uphill?

Bigelow admits that many people thought he was a bit goofy to pour his money into a project that is, to put it mildly, a long shot. Bigelow himself figures he has only a 50-50 chance of ever getting his money back, let alone of making a profit. But it’s his money, and since his is not a publicly traded corporation, the only stockholder he needs to answer to is Mrs. Bigelow. So far, she’s on board.

Sometime later this year or early next year, the lid of secrecy over Bigelow Aerospace will be lifted for good. The company plans to open up its plant for regular tours by local science students. When that happens, area residents will begin to realize that what is happening at the space campus in Southern Nevada could end up changing human history in ways that we can barely imagine.

“We are definitely moving in the same direction and on a parallel path with Bob," said NASA’s Miller. "He’s come a long way in a short time, and we want to make sure that he succeeds. We’re building real hardware here, and it’s destined for space."