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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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.

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