Mr. B’s Big Plan
Robert Bigelow has put two mini-space stations in orbit. Now comes the hard part.
- By Geoffrey Little
- Air & Space magazine, January 2008
Bigelow Aerospace, Inc.
(Page 2 of 7)
Before the launch, a campaign called “Fly Your Stuff” had drawn a lot of attention. For $295 each, about 200 customers had sent tiny payloads (smaller than golf balls) into space to watch them, via interior cameras, float around the spacecraft cabin. Most people sent photos, but some sent personal mementos—a 1/52-scale race car, interlocking wedding bands, even a little wooden duck—that could be seen in the grainy but recognizable images beamed to Earth and displayed on the Web site. (Bigelow had promised that if in 90 days you didn’t get a clear shot of your object, your money would be refunded.) One participant said on his blog, “It was neat seeing Mom floating in space. Dad would have been amazed.”
While these and other pictures (including a video composite of Earth and photos projected on the exterior of the spacecraft) had come down from Genesis II, the number of high-resolution images was disappointingly low. Other experiments announced prior to launch had gone missing entirely. One, called Biobox, was to carry three species of insects. Another, a bingo game with air-driven ping pong balls, was to demonstrate on-orbit actuators and communication while providing entertainment for Web site visitors. Since launch, there had been no sign of the bugs or the bingo.
Inside Building A, I follow a guard up two flights of metal stairs, where a door opens onto a conference room overlooking mission control. There, a lone controller sits at one of six kidney-shaped desks, facing a huge wall of video displays that chart the orbits of both Genesis satellites. Captured camera images and tracking data stream across the screens—Apogee: 560 km; Inclination: 64.5°. Temperatures inside the modules range from 40 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit. All systems show nominal. At an altitude of 350 miles (75 miles higher than the International Space Station), the 2,800-pound satellites will orbit for seven to 10 years before reentering Earth’s atmosphere.
I watch for several minutes. It’s a lovely, hypnotic sight.
Mr. Bigelow breaks my reverie. He greets me cordially and ushers me into his modest-sized office, just off the conference room. It’s decorated with plaques and a close-up portrait of himself with Buzz Aldrin. One interior window overlooks the shop floor, and the other looks onto mission control. Behind his desk sit two computer monitors, both dark; for many years Bigelow eschewed computers and e-mail entirely.
Today he’s casual, wearing crisply pressed beige slacks and a short-sleeve dress shirt embroidered with a Bigelow Aerospace logo. A tall, trim, 63-year-old with a full head of silvery-black hair, Bigelow is well-coiffed, and his smile is relaxed under a full mustache.
“I spend about 40 percent of my time here,” he says as we settle into two side chairs. The rest he spends at the headquarters of Bigelow Management, close to the downtown airport. From there he runs his hotel and real estate business and other ventures.
By his own estimate, Bigelow’s fortune stands somewhere south of a billion dollars; he’s never been on the Forbes 400 richest people list, which this year started at a billion. He’s said repeatedly that he can meet his $500 million commitment to Bigelow Aerospace without dipping into capital: “We won’t be eating the leg of the cow.”