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.
FLYING INTO LAS VEGAS on a westbound airliner, I gaze down at the casinos along the famous Strip, miles long, glowing in the night. It occurs to me that the city where Robert T. Bigelow—owner of the first privately held real estate in space—lives and works is itself a kind of satellite outpost, surrounded by harsh, empty desert. It’s a fitting spot from which to control a pair of mini-space stations, Genesis I and II, launched in July 2006 and June 2007. The van-size modules are currently orbiting Earth, with daily operations run out of Bigelow Aerospace’s mission control in north Las Vegas. Cost so far: under $100 million.
“If a few years ago anyone in the space industry told you they could develop, launch, and control two new satellites for less than $1 billion or $2 billion—let alone under $100 million—they’d be stringing you along,” says former Bigelow consultant and NASA chief of staff Courtney Stadd. “But Bigelow has done it.”
Having pledged five times that much—more than half his net worth—to build inflatable space habitats using technology pioneered, then abandoned, by NASA, Bigelow, with a company of roughly 125 employees, is aiming even higher. His goal is to send people to a larger, habitable module called Sundancer by 2010. By 2012, he hopes to place a full-size, 330-cubic-meter (11,700-cubic-foot) module, the BA 330, in orbit, with more to follow later.
For a company that’s barely eight years old, it’s an audacious plan, and I’ve come to ask the reclusive real estate mogul, who rarely grants interviews, how things are going. (Employees refer to him as Mr. Bigelow; those who work with him closely call him Mr. B.)
As I drive up to the Bigelow Aerospace facility, 10 miles north of the Strip, another famous Las Vegas recluse and aerospace pioneer, Howard Hughes, is on my mind. Maybe there’s something about this place that breeds mavericks willing to buck conventional thinking in pursuit of grand engineering projects.
Set back on a 50-acre lot in a mixed residential and commercial neighborhood, surrounded by a razor wire fence, sit two large industrial buildings snuggled into a ridge. From a distance, a large white communications sphere on the ridge and twin radio towers are all that mark this as a space facility.
After being cleared through security (manned by guards with 9-mm pistols), I’m escorted into Building A—the huge assembly and integration area. I’m immediately disappointed. There’s nothing much to see except for a few half-molds and a support platform. Then it dawns on me: Bigelow’s first two spacecraft have left the building. They’re in orbit.
In the weeks following the Genesis II launch, though, the company had said almost nothing about the spacecraft’s health. This is private spaceflight, and it is just that—private. The module was said to have 22 interior and exterior cameras, improved versions of the ones on Genesis I, but the high-resolution images had not been released. In early August, a month before my visit, a cryptic statement from Bigelow posted on the company’s cluttered Web site hinted at difficulties. Bandwidth and downlink time were being reserved for command and control of the vehicle, not photos and videos. Perhaps all was not well with Genesis II.
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.”
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.
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?”
The audience was polite and attentive, but after Bigelow stepped down, I overheard one of the attendees mutter, “Yeah, I did spreadsheets like that in the 1990s, but there was always a few extra zeroes on the end.” Translation: Bigelow’s service might end up having a per-astronaut-per-month cost of not $14 million but $140 million.
Private space stations have been attempted before. Joe Allen, a former astronaut who flew two space shuttle missions before leaving NASA in 1985 for the private sector, says, “I spent a number of years and untold amounts of money, other people’s money,” on a plan to build and operate a small space station. For a projected cost of $1 billion to $2 billion, the Industrial Space Facility would have served as an orbiting “construction shack or outbuilding” leased to NASA. In the end, the scheme was defeated by the glacial pace of the agency’s decision-making and skeptical outside reviews.
Allen thinks that anyone proposing a commercial space habitat faces two kinds of challenges: technical, which he says are relatively easy, and business, which are hard. Though he has not reviewed Bigelow’s plans, Allen speaks from experience. “It’s not clear what a revenue source would be to pay for something like [a station], and there’s no reason to do it privately except as a hobby,” he says. “My question is: ‘Who is the customer?’ ” I explain Bigelow’s plan to attract corporate and non-U.S.-government clients, though none have signed up yet. I describe it as a “build and they will come” approach. “That’s where I’m skeptical in the extreme,” Allen says. He concedes that Bigelow may succeed where the Industrial Space Facility failed 20 years ago, but says, “It’s going to take a bold individual. The upfront costs are huge.”
Howard McCurdy, a professor of space policy at American University in Washington, D.C., thinks Bigelow may be one of those catalytic individuals. “He’s the Leland Stanford of the 21st century,” he says, referring to the co-founder of the Central Pacific Railroad. But, says McCurdy, there’s a critical difference. The railroads had a government subsidy—free land they could commercialize. For space, he asks: “Where’s the subsidy?
“I’ve never seen a major new technology that was developed fully without a subsidy or incentive,” he adds, recounting how the 1925 Kelly Act launched the airline industry by guaranteeing airmail routes to commercial carriers. Both Allen and McCurdy think that without NASA or some other deep-pocket agency as the major “anchor tenant,” a private space business is doomed.
Yet Bigelow is determined to go it alone, without NASA or Pentagon help. He frequently compares his space venture to real estate deals, saying that in principle, his space station is no different from a $50 million office building.
Perhaps. But office buildings aren’t surrounded by a deadly vacuum, or constantly threatened by radiation and meteoroids. NASA spends millions on technology to keep astronauts safe in orbit. What makes Bigelow think he can do it for less?
When it comes to what aerospace engineers call ECLSS—environmental control and life support systems, the technology that keeps astronauts breathing clean air and drinking pure water—Bigelow says that by the time he puts people inside Sundancer, he’ll have options. “We will use a mixed menu if we have to, from the Russians and others,” he says. He’ll use proven ECLSS systems at first, while his engineers develop technology they can test in Bigelow habitats.
The major ECLSS suppliers to NASA will be no help, he believes. They won’t even consider working for a commercial venture unless it’s for a cost-plus contract, according to Bigelow. “That’s how you get to where buying a $19 million toilet is [the cheapest option],” alluding to the amount NASA reportedly paid the Russians for their space station plumbing technology.
David Klaus, a professor of engineering at University of Colorado and an expert on ECLSS, doesn’t discount the idea of getting life support in space cheaply. “I hate to use a cliché, but [ECLSS] is not rocket science,” he says. “It’s basically HVAC—heating, venting, and air conditioning—in space.” As to whether Bigelow can do the job for a fraction of what NASA spends, he says, “You can go into space with a couple of scuba tanks. You can go with ‘big, dumb, heavy’ solutions that are reliable. The higher costs come when you want to combine low mass and high reliability.”
Either way, Bigelow doesn’t lose sleep over it. What he does worry about, a lot, is whether he will be able to find a ride to orbit that he can afford. “Transportation is the showstopper,” he tells me. No human-rated rockets, no astronauts in orbit, no space business.
Bigelow has contracted with another “new space” pioneer, Elon Musk of California-based SpaceX, for flights on Musk’s planned Falcon 9 rocket in 2010. But Musk, after an investment of $100 million and two launches, has yet to make it to orbit. To cover his bet, Bigelow also entered into an exploratory agreement with Lockheed Martin to study the possibility of human-rating the proven Atlas V launcher. Meanwhile, he’s sent consultant Courtney Stadd searching the world for cheap launch systems—so far with no luck. “It looks like there’ll be no reliable, affordable launch system until mid-next decade,” Stadd laments.
So, rather than wait around for the launch industry to deliver, Bigelow is reluctantly entering the arena as a player. “I didn’t want to fight a two-front war,” he says. But, by the time this article is published, he expects to have announced his investment in a new space capsule. “We’re making a capital investment in the creation of a capsule for crew and cargo, one that will have a common interface that can be placed on a [Russian] Proton rocket, a human-rated Atlas, or possibly Musk’s Falcon 9,” he says. It will be a seven-person capsule, big enough to carry people to the large BA 330 stations. “We won’t be designing the capsule, but we’ll be very active investors,” he says.
BIGELOW WAS BORN IN Las Vegas and has spent his entire life there. (“Haven’t gotten very far, have I?” he quips.) Born under the West’s big sky, he is a man with big ideas. The ringtone on his cell phone is “Yippie-yi-yo, Yippie-yi-yay,” the chorus from the cowboy ballad “Ghostriders in the Sky.”
He was 13 when in 1957 the Soviets launched Sputnik, and in his youth he was fascinated by his grandparents’ oft-told story of a 1947 encounter with a UFO, a red object streaking overhead as they drove across the desert. “When you grow up here, there are so many people who have these profound experiences” of alien encounters and sightings, he says. “It does affect you.”
I’ve brought up this topic gingerly, but Bigelow jumps right in without hesitation. “Oh, you mean the UFOs,” he says, chuckling, then looks me right in the eye. “I have no doubt.” Though he’s never had an encounter, he has spent years tracking down reports of alien visits. “I’ve personally done 235 interviews, just like you’re doing, with a notepad and tape recorder.” He is most interested in close encounters—“Things 100 or 200 feet in front of you that are undeniable.”
He tells me about his Utah ranch (often called Skinwalker Ranch, it was the site of reported alien cattle mutilations), which he bought in the mid-1990s and which still functions as a “living library for research.” Around the same time he created and funded the National Institute for Discovery Science, which operated until 2004. Before it went dormant, it was the place to call if you wanted a multi-disciplinary investigative team—forensics experts, ex-FBI agents, even a veterinarian—to come document or investigate your alien encounter. Often Bigelow would accompany the investigative teams, flying them to sites in his jet.
He worries about what will happen when contact with aliens is made, and whether civilization will be prepared. “Will people go to the gun store? Buy up everything? Hide in their houses?” he asks. “Will deliveries get made, or will people go to work?” This is clearly a topic of deep, continuing interest to him. (Bigelow Aerospace’s mission control screens feature an iconic large-eyed alien, and Bigelow has promised to share any “anomalous video” from Genesis I or II with other seekers of aliens.)
Our interview concludes. As I wait for the security guard to escort me from the building, I look out over mission control, now dark. The twin Genesis satellites are on the other side of the world. Turning around, I can see Bigelow immediately return to some task, his assistant bringing him a sheaf of messages that have stacked up while we’ve been talking.
Back in March, before we’d even talked on the phone, I had my own personal encounter with a spacecraft—one of Bigelow’s, as it turned out. Planning to watch the live Webcast of SpaceX’s Falcon 1 launch from the South Pacific, I took my dog out for her walk early. It was an exceptionally clear, dark night in Connecticut. I stood and stared up at the stars for several minutes. Then I spotted a satellite with a bright orange cast, magnitude 2.5 or brighter, transiting the sky in a north-northeasterly direction, between the constellation Leo and Saturn. I tracked it easily for more than a minute and a half until it disappeared over the Atlantic, heading toward Newfoundland. That can’t be Genesis, I thought.
When I checked a satellite tracking Web site back at home, I learned that, sure enough, it was Genesis I, NORAD ID No. 29252. I felt an undeniable thrill at seeing it and watching the Falcon launch on the same night. Privately funded, entrepreneurial spaceflight was happening before my eyes.