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.
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“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.