LAS CRUCES, N.M. — Bigelow Aerospace says it has received formal expressions of interest from six governments in leasing space aboard the company’s planned inflatable space habitats that could begin launching as soon as 2014.
Robert Bigelow, founder and chief executive of North Las Vegas, Nev.-based Bigelow Aerospace, said the company has signed memoranda of understanding with the governments of Australia, Netherlands, Japan, Singapore, Sweden and the United Kingdom. These agreements are not financial commitments, he said, adding that he hopes to secure such commitments by 2012.
“All these different countries have agencies or significant space departments, and our ambition is to first cultivate relationships with as many of those countries as we can,” Bigelow said in an Oct. 20 interview. “In the process we’ve learned there’s some significant dissatisfaction around the world with lack of access to the international space station, and the collateral expenses that are involved.”
Bigelow said about 80 percent of astronauts occupying the orbiting outpost are either American or Russian. “So 20 percent, roughly, isn’t a lot left for the rest of the world,” he said.
Bigelow, a real estate and hotel industry tycoon who founded Bigelow Aerospace in 1999, has sunk roughly $210 million of his money into the venture, including development, production and launch of two prototype inflatable modules in 2006 and 2007 aboard modified Russian missiles. More recently, Bigelow Aerospace began a $20 million expansion of its North Las Vegas operation to include a 17,000-square-meter manufacturing facility slated for completion next year.
The company’s initial target market included space tourists but primarily was corporations that might benefit from experiments in the microgravity environment of Earth orbit.
“Our business case has never been modeled on the dependency of tourists and space visitors; it’s just too expensive, and people with that kind of money and ambition are I think too few too establish a solid business case,” Bigelow said. He added that he does see a viable space tourism business for companies like Space Adventures, which arranges trips to the space station aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft at around $30 million a seat.
Bigelow said he saw an opportunity to expand his market to non-U.S. government clients after a meeting five years ago with Chile’s lone astronaut. He said that drove home the notion that some countries lack the resources to send people into space despite a strong desire to do so.
“That’s when I really realized that I needed to expand our target market from corporations, which at the time I thought was the largest potential client base we might have,” he said. “There’s probably 50 or 60 countries in the world that have some sort of space ambition, and what the hell are they supposed to do?”
Bigelow said the company recently revised its leasing options and pricing to allow smaller governments to participate.
“I cut it down to one-year leases, six-month leases, three-year leases, so people can get their feet wet and decide, ‘Is this for me?’ before they commit more money,” he said.
“In the new leasing guide we’re setting 2012 as a year where we would like to see some expression that’s more serious in the way of deposits,” he said. “We want to be there ready to launch all of our spacecraft, so that intersection for us is the 2014-2015 timeframe.”
Since launching the prototype Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 modules, Bigelow Aerospace has been developing larger structures planned for launch starting in 2014. But Bigelow said plans to loft two structures — the Sundance module and BA-330 expandable habitat — will depend on the availability of commercial astronaut transport services to low Earth orbit.
“We will not launch those if it looks as though there are delays in transportation being able to be executed on a regular basis,” he said. Routine access to low Earth orbit, he said, also depends on access to adequate launch facilities “without government interference.”
Bigelow is partnering with Chicago-based Boeing Co. to build a seven-person space capsule dubbed CST-100 with help from an $18 million fixed-price agreement with NASA, which is looking to foster commercial crew taxi services for the space station. That module would launch aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket.
Bigelow said Japan has expressed interest in building a commercial launch facility that could service the company’s Asian and European clients.
“There are many ways countries can partner to use these assets,” he said. “It’s a significant boost to a nation’s image.”