LAS VEGAS and CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — When Robert Bigelow was around 9 years old, he heard a story that changed his life. It was about his grandparents coming home after an evening’s drive to Mount Charleston, located just outside of Las Vegas.
They saw what looked to them like an airplane on fire and slowed down. Seconds later, they realized the craft was not exactly on fire, but it was glowing. They stopped the car. It approached.
“The proximity of that spacecraft was so close that it filled up the entire windshield,” Bigelow said during a recent interview. “Within seconds of that spacecraft coming from a certain distance away to filling up the windshield they thought they were going to die.”
At the last second, his grandparents said, the vehicle darted off to the left and flew away at an amazing speed.
“My grandfather, who was not a wimpy guy, was so shook up they had to sit there for about a half-hour before they were able to compose themselves and start heading down the road again,” Bigelow said.
That experience, among others, turned young Bigelow’s eyes permanently toward space, though it took a career in the most terrestrial industry imaginable — real estate — to launch the aerospace business that now carries the Bigelow name.
Bigelow Aerospace at a Glance
Business focus: Space habitats
Product lines: Genesis prototypes, Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), station Alpha
Founder and president: Robert Bigelow
Location: Las Vegas
Personnel: About 100
“I’ve built about 15,000 apartments in my career. I’ve purchased about 8,000 more, and I’ve built a lot of other kinds of buildings besides those kinds of developments,” said Bigelow, who is perhaps best known in real estate circles as the owner of the Budget Suites of America hotel chain.
He made millions, which was exactly the plan, and in 1999 — the year he turned 50 — Bigelow began pouring his fortune into a new venture, Bigelow Aerospace.
“It was a very premeditated life’s ambition,” Bigelow said. “It was spawned from the conversations I had had with my family as a young boy about sightings and things that they had seen that were novel kinds of spacecraft.
“Hearing those stories from members of my own family made me quickly realize that there was a whole lot that we didn’t know. I became just fascinated — that’s an understatement — in terms of things to do with space.”
Unlike most commercial space startups of the day, Bigelow decided to pass on transportation services and focus on destinations, a fitting match to his real estate ventures.
Picking up on work abandoned by NASA, Bigelow Aerospace focused on inflatable habitats that could be folded up for launching and expanded in orbit. The lightweight structures not only can fly for far less cost than traditional metal spacecraft, but the balloon-like structures also should offer better radiation protection.
Two Bigelow Aerospace prototypes already are in orbit and NASA last year signed up for a test module, called BEAM, to fly on the international space station.
Bigelow’s goal is to launch a free-flying outpost, comprised of two BA-330 modules, which would have half the volume of the space station. The company intends to lease out space and time aboard the habitat, which it calls station Alpha, to research agencies, companies, sovereign nations and perhaps even some well-heeled tourists.
Success, however, rides on something beyond the company’s control — the availability of rides to space.
“Transportation was much slower in becoming a reality than I had imagined it would be back in 2002 or 2003. I never suspected that we would be sitting here in 2013 still talking about the potential eventuality of taxi service to and from low Earth orbit,” Bigelow said.
“I’ve had to throttle our company back and choke our progress relative to the pace of what allocations have been made to the different companies,” he added.
Bigelow is counting on Space Exploration Technologies Corp. () and/or Boeing to deliver its spaceships, customers and cargo to orbit. Launch of the BA-330s is targeted for late 2016 or early 2017.
“I think that SpaceX is going to be there first. I think they’ll be functioning a human-rated rocket and a human-rated spacecraft by 2016, maybe before we even have our two 330s (modules) ready to fly. If Boeing is there, fine. If they’re not, we hope that SpaceX will be. I still think it’s very possible to be in operations in early 2017,” Bigelow said.
The company’s ambitions do not end at Earth orbit. Within a decade Bigelow wants to have a small base on the Moon, perhaps operated in partnership with NASA.
Bigelow does not regret that he did not take on space taxi development, despite the fact that his company’s future rides on its success.
“It’s never wise to fight a two-front war, and looking at the resources that I had to work with I had to make a conscious decision about what not to get into and I did not want to get into what everybody else was getting into,” Bigelow said. “We obviously have a dependence on other people doing their job and perfecting the transportation safely and expeditiously and affordably, but that’s not a decision I would have ever changed.”
Success for Bigelow Aerospace may never be measured in dollars — that is not its raison d’être.
“The ambition for me is a lot more than money,” said Bigelow, who has contributed more than $250 million of his own funds in the company and expects that investment to double over the next few years.
“I want to be part of something that is exciting and fun and, on a more substantive scale, to be part of something that can change society, that can change the human race, that opens up great potential for our species, and to be part of the community of other folks who are trying to do the same thing,” he said.
Bigelow Aerospace has not yet taken any deposits for station Alpha leases, though it has preliminary agreements with agencies in seven countries, including the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Australia, Singapore, Japan, Sweden and the United Arab Emirate of Dubai.
The BA-330s are the largest modules the 100-employee company can handle in its land-locked Las Vegas construction facility. Its bigger space habitats, already in design, will need to be built where they can be shipped, not flown, to the launch site.
“We’re interested in having facilities near Huntsville, Ala., where there’s a waterway and we can have a plant building much larger expandable systems that would fly on larger, heavy-lift rockets,” Bigelow said. “We have spacecraft already designed larger than the 330, so we don’t have any alternative but to start a plant and open another facility someplace close to a launch site that can accommodate larger payloads.”