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.