Mr. B’s Big Plan

Robert Bigelow has put two mini-space stations in orbit. Now comes the hard part.

One photo returned from Genesis II last summer was a birthday surprise for Bigelow's 15-year-old granddaughter Blair: her name stitched on the spacecraft's fabric exterior. (Bigelow Aerospace, Inc.)
Air & Space Magazine

(Continued from page 1)

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.

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus