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 3 of 7)
The cash cow is a chain of extended-stay hotel/apartments in Nevada, Texas, and Arizona, called the Budget Suites of America, that Bigelow founded in 1988. He currently owns 16 Budget Suites, which, along with other properties, provide a steady flow of rental income. That, plus profits from his other ventures, is enough to keep Bigelow Aerospace going for now.
Asked about problems with the Genesis modules, he’s open and direct. “Both spacecraft are operating well, but a few weeks ago we had a glitch on Genesis II,” he says. “One of the subsystems went off-line, and we had to reboot the spacecraft’s onboard computers.” I had noticed a 10-item troubleshooting list scrawled on the whiteboard in the adjoining conference room (“Software bug?” “Radiation spike?”) and suspected as much. The problems were affecting flight attitude, he says, which can be adjusted with passive (non-propulsive) flight controls. Without a reboot, the craft could have dropped to a lower orbit, or worse.
The reboot “was a little tense,” Bigelow admits. “You never know if the spacecraft is going to come back to life.” The first module, “Gennie 1,” as mission controllers call it, had to be rebooted last December, and again a few months later. The engineering team never got the faulty subsystem back online after the first reboot, so radiation seems the likely culprit. Luckily the system was not flight-critical.
The real bugs, the ones in the Biobox, are dead—“Kaput,” Bigelow says—victims of a six-month delay during which the payload was in cold storage in Russia. They never even made it to launch day. And as of early September, the bingo game hadn’t been turned on due to communication problems with ground stations. Bigelow currently has operational stations in Nevada, Alaska, and Hawaii. He’s commissioning another in Maine, which will ensure full coverage of North America, and plans to build or lease several more around the world. Two of the existing stations have had troubles. Alaska has been down one or two days a month, and Hawaii has been out 50 percent of the time.
At this early phase of the program, such difficulties don’t bother Bigelow. “We’re gaining experience and learning how to operate missions on orbit,” he says. “We want to test to fault. That’s our goal.” He seems completely undaunted by what is, after all, still a part-time job for him. Nor does he brag about the success he’s had so far. “We haven’t accomplished that much yet,” he says.
Even so, just a few weeks before my visit, Bigelow had raised his bet. He announced that due in part to the rising costs of Russian rockets, he would skip the next planned launch, of an intermediate-size module called Galaxy, and proceed directly to the human-habitable Sundancer, a 6,300-cubic-foot module, which would be in orbit by 2010. A gutsy and exciting move, to be sure. While other players in the nascent commercial space sector were slipping their schedules, Bigelow wanted to go faster.
ROBERT BIGELOW DIDN’T set out to put habitats in orbit, or even start his own space business. In 1996, he decided to invest in “two or three” of the emerging commercial space companies. Once on the inside, “I was shocked and amazed,” he says. “They may have known rocket science, but they had no understanding of the science of business.” The companies promised great things in PowerPoint while running huge deficits and living from one government contract to another. Bigelow declined the board seats offered him, divested, and went his own way.
In 1999, he founded Bigelow Aerospace with the notion of building his own spaceships. His early ideas were fanciful non-starters, like a cruise-ship-style spacecraft that could accommodate 100 passengers on a round-the-moon voyage. Then he came across some magazine articles, including one in Air & Space/Smithsonian (“Launch. Inflate. Insert Crew,” Apr./May 1999), about a $100 million NASA project called Transhab, a lightweight inflatable habitat, made of tough, puncture-proof fabric, that was designed to shelter astronauts on Mars. Under Congressional scrutiny, the program was in danger of being cut. One detail caught Bigelow’s attention: Transhab was considered by its inventors to be potentially suitable for docking with the International Space Station.