COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Space entrepreneur Robert Bigelow rolled out a business plan here yesterday focused on two primary markets: foreign space agencies, which he called “Sovereign Clients” and multinational corporations, or “prime clients.”
Bigelow, founder and president of Bigelow Aerospace, as well as owner of the Budget Suites of America Hotel Chain among other enterprises, unveiled his aerospace company’s business plan during a press conference here at the 23rd National Space Symposium.
Backdropped by the words, “Making Orbital Dreams Reality,” Bigelow said it is a misnomer to consider his company as a space hotel venture, as many have since he first went public with his plan to build habitable modules in low Earth orbit. Rather, it should be viewed as a wholesaler of destinations in space for a variety of customers, he said.
While seeing the suborbital tourism market as a viable private industry, “we can’t count upon any kind of business model that has some dependency upon NASA” in regards to supporting orbital business growth, Bigelow said. He also said the company is not counting on any work from the U.S. Defense Department: “In the suborbital case, I think that they are free of a lot of politics. In the orbiting area that we’re involved in, because of the makeup of our respective client base we’re going to be steeped in politics … drowning in politics,” he said.
High-tech Hang Time
At present, Bigelow said worldwide there are 164 nations with active space programs and about 225 active astronauts. Why not more after so many years? The answer, he said is that up to now there has only been one destination and then only from time-to-time.
“What we’re out to do is try and identify maybe 50 or 60 countries … to provide them “hang time” — a term he identified as the activity of a foreign nation’s astronauts flying for four weeks in a Bigelow Aerospace-provided orbital complex, conducting that nation’s experiments or other activities and returning those individuals to Earth after their respective missions.
“Our forecast for this service to be available is 2012. Obviously, the long pole in the tent is transportation [to orbit] … a major, major thing.”
Bigelow outlined a price structure to utilize company’s crewed space facilities. The plan evolves from the orbiting in 2010 of the company’s first habitable complex called Sundancer, which will be outfitted to accommodate three people. Once in orbit, a propulsion bus and node would be lofted to attach to Sundancer in 2011.
By 2012, Bigelow Aerospace would launch its first standard, 6-person module, substantially bigger than Sundancer. By docking modules and associated hardware together, complexes can be crafted in Earth orbit to house 13 to 15 people and eventually more.
The projected cost to a country for transportation to space and living onboard a Bigelow space complex for a four-week period will be $14.9 million in 2012 dollars. However, an additional four weeks would cost only another $2.95 million, Bigelow said.
“We’re trying to make it easy for people to say ‘yes’,” Bigelow said, to depart Earth and to obtain hang time in low Earth orbit for a variety of purposes. Module complexes would be spaced in different locales in low Earth orbit depending on what that facility and its occupants are engaged in, he advised.
In an interview April 12, Bigelow acknowledged that the pricing will depend on the availability of launch vehicles currently under development and that he could not deliver those prices using any existing launchers and human spacecraft. At present there are only three vehicles launching people into space: the space shuttle, Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft and China’s Shenzhou spacecraft.
Bigelow said he is banking on cheaper commercial alternatives to those government-owned spacecraft, citing as examples, Rocketplane Kistler and Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), which are developing spacecraft with some funding assistance from NASA’s Commercial Orbit Transportation Services program.
Construction plant growth
Bigelow said a major expansion of ground-based construction facilities in Las Vegas is on tap with an additional 200,000 square feet planned. “Our objective is to be able to create a plant that will produce two [full-standard] modules a year … for starters.”
“The landscape is littered with challenges everywhere you look,” Bigelow said . “It’s like glass is everywhere.”
Up to now, Bigelow Aerospace has spent about $95 million. “It’ll take a lot more money to get us into the 2012 time frame,” Bigelow said, indicating that he is putting together an investment strategy that will make possible the establishment of commercial space complexes, not only for low Earth orbit, but other destinations too.
Bigelow said the second group of customers the company will focus on includes high-tech and biotech firms that want to conduct experiments in space and medical, automotive and entertainment companies.
The Bigelow Aerospace plans have been bolstered by the successful orbiting on July 12, 2006, of its Genesis 1 expandable module by a Dnepr booster under contract with ISC Kosmotras, a Russian and Ukrainian rocket-for-hire company.
The Genesis 2 is now in Russia with a target launch date of April 26, Bigelow said.