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 4 of 7)
It was an “aha” moment. With their lower weight and smaller volume, Bigelow reasoned, inflatables could be space stations themselves, providing habitats that would be far less costly to launch. Within months, NASA was indeed forced to drop Transhab. Bigelow immediately began negotiations with the agency to license the technology under the Space Act Agreement. Whereas NASA had previously been “resistant to private sector development,” according to Mike Gold, Bigelow’s Washington, D.C.-based corporate counsel, the space agency was more cooperative during the transfer process. Gold now characterizes the company’s relations with NASA as “excellent.”
By 2002, Bigelow had secured the rights to Transhab’s patents, about eight in all. But the technical information accompanying the patents was sketchy. “There was no book of instructions,” he says.
Nonetheless, he and his new hires (engineers with commercial-satellite experience from TRW, Boeing, Raytheon—though initially none from NASA) set to work, filling in the gaps as best they could. As part of the licensing agreement, NASA sent former Transhab team members to Las Vegas. But they had only vague knowledge of how and why certain things had been done. Bigelow recalls that “very often they would study a problem, then say, ‘Well the guy who really did that was Schneider, and you can’t get him anymore.’ ” After this happened about five times, Bigelow started asking, “Who the hell is this guy Schneider, and why can’t I get him?”
Schneider was William Schneider, considered the father of Transhab. He was no longer at NASA, and therefore not part of the licensing deal, having retired as a senior engineer in 2000. Finally, in 2002, Bigelow heard that Schneider had taken a post on the engineering faculty at Texas A&M University and might be available. Bigelow invited him and his wife for a visit. Schneider arrived shortly afterward to see his orphaned project resurrected on the floor of a plant in north Las Vegas. He looked over the work carefully. “I was absolutely amazed at what they had done,” Schneider says. “They had taken some of the patents and made [those technologies]. It wasn’t exactly right, but they had made big modules out of aluminum and they had some inflatable versions.” But, he adds, “It wasn’t mature at all. It was more of a show thing.”
There was plenty to do, and Schneider got to work. Now he spends a few days every two weeks working in Las Vegas as a consultant, staying at a nearby Bigelow Budget Suites. He describes the structural core of the Sundancer module, which he says is mostly designed (the fabrication building is off limits to me on this trip): “We’ll have eight longerons—longitudinal beams—run the length of the spacecraft. And we’ll have honeycomb panels in between, locking and holding it all together, so it works like one structural beam.” The core is surrounded by a multi-layer skin and debris shield, which are launched folded around the core. Schneider likens the inflatable habitat to a football with a bladder and pigskin on the outside: “The pigskin takes the real forces but couldn’t hold the gas, and the rubber holds the gas but couldn’t take the forces.” Once in space, the habitat expands to full volume in less than 30 minutes, with gas pushing out the Vectran outer skin to a pressure of 10 pounds per square inch. At 10 psi, Bigelow likes to remind skeptics, it’s harder than steel.
Since acquiring the inflatable technology from NASA, the company has filed for additional patents. One of the most recent, for a micrometeoroid and debris shield, was granted in April. The shield disintegrates incoming debris, breaking it up into small, harmless bits that can’t penetrate the skin of the module. Bigelow is justifiably proud of the innovation—the patent carries his name as the sole inventor.
“He’s kind of like Howard Hughes developing flush rivets and such,” Schneider says. “He’s not going to sit back, you know. He’s going to be in the middle of it.”
Because of its greater weight (some 19,000 pounds), Sundancer will have to ride a much larger rocket than Genesis did. Bigelow intends to launch by 2010 even if he can’t get a crew up there right away. He would leave Sundancer in orbit for three to five months, pressurized, then send two astronauts up for two “housekeeping trips.” The larger, seven-person BA 330 module will remain on the ground-for years if need be—until there’s a reliable, affordable way to launch people into orbit.
Last April, at the National Space Symposium in Colorado, Bigelow laid out his business plan, which calls for three full-size space stations in orbit by 2017, and more than 30 launches a year to service them. Projected price to customers: $14 million per astronaut per month in space, most of which would go for transportation costs. The company is targeting two types of client: governments who want a work place with “significant hang time” in microgravity, and companies involved in biotech, software, and other industries who would sign longer leases to do research and even manufacturing. Customers could rent an entire module for $88 million a year.
In Bigelow’s business plan, space tourism plays only a minor role. He is emphatically not running space hotels. And he’s not counting on NASA or military contracts. He fears getting bogged down in bureaucracy, and wants the stations to be used only for peaceful purposes. His goal, he said in Colorado, is to become nothing less than an orbital Hudson Bay Company, selling goods and services in a thriving space economy. “There are 225 active astronauts in the world,” he told the gathering. “After 45 years, shouldn’t there be a zero at the end of that figure?”