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

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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.

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