The Genesis-1 module now orbiting Earth is transmitting data about its temperature, hull integrity, power levels and overall health, but perhaps the strongest signal it is sending is a symbolic one about entrepreneurial zeal and one company’s vision for opening the space frontier.
As a pathfinder demonstrator spacecraft, the Genesis-1 mission marks the birth of a long-term vision to build commercial space structures in Earth orbit and beyond. Footing the bill on this business venture — now gauged at upwards of a $75 million outlay — is Robert Bigelow, owner of the Budget Suites of America hotel chain and other ventures including Bigelow Aerospace in North Las Vegas, which has now launched and is operating its first space module in Earth orbit.
Genesis-1, which was launched July 17 atop a Russian- and Ukrainian-built Dnepr rocket, is a step “to transform the dream of a robust human presence in space into a reality,” Bigelow has said.
“This is as close as it gets to entrepreneurial orbital excellence … funded by private Bigelow dollars and an operating, subscale, test space station on-orbit,” said Burt Rutan, head of Scaled Composites in Mojave, Calif.
Rutan and his team are busy building suborbital space vehicles that will carry the designation, SpaceShipTwo, and be used to take high end tourists to suborbital space. He said that he heartily congratulates Bigelow, as do many of the other “little guys” in the new industry.
“Pioneers like this are what it takes to get out of our three-decades-long period of no progress toward opening the frontier for the people,” Rutan said.
Scott Hubbard, former director of NASA’s Ames Research Center and now a visiting scholar at Stanford University and a Carl Sagan chair at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif., has been working with a team of seven Stanford Master of Business Administration (MBA) graduate students to evaluate the business case for the emerging space industry.
Hubbard said Bigelow’s success will depend on three key elements: low-cost space access, demand from the marketplace and a platform in low Earth orbit.
In this triad of access, demand and platform, Hubbard said , the Bigelow team has taken a giant step toward demonstrating private-sector capability in the third element. “And I suspect Bigelow has some clever ideas about stimulating demand,” he added.
Delivering on promises
Making public space travel a reality will require putting together a lot of separate pieces, including a reliable and affordable transportation system and an orbital outpost as a destination, said John Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute, a part of the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University in Washington.
The launch of Genesis-1, Logsdon said, is an important milestone along that path. “It is refreshing to see a private-sector venture that is delivering on its promises,” he said.
The fact that Bigelow Aerospace obtained an export license for their module technology is significant, said Jerry Grey, director of science and technology policy for the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics .
Grey said that there is nothing unique about a private-sector payload — hundreds of commercial satellites have been orbited — many with export licenses for Russian launchers. There is significance in showcasing an expandable structure in space, he added.
“But such structures are not unique,” Grey explained. “NASA had done several experiments on inflatables in space,” he said, “although not very successfully … and there are many designs that have not as yet flown.”
However, Bigelow’s success does deserve high marks, Grey said , “in view of the few successes in space entrepreneurship to date … as compared to, say, computers and other electronic system entrepreneurs.”
Bigelow’s Genesis-1 is somewhat reminiscent of a plan conceived in the early 1980s by a private U.S. firm, Space Industries Inc., which wanted to build a commercial space station it dubbed the Industrial Space Facility (ISF) that would have been used for microgravity manufacturing and experimentation.
While not an inflatable habitat, it was to be a free-flying facility that ran on its own and would crank out electronic materials, pharmaceuticals and other specialty goods. The company envisioned having crews visit the ISF to reap its bounty of made-in-space products. The idea dead-ended.
Ideas for inflatable structures in space have been considered for years, said Roger Launius, chair of the Smithsonian Institution’s Division of Space History at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington .
The Goodyear Aircraft Corp. in 1961 designed an 8.4-meter, two-person inner-tube-like inflatable space station, Launius said.
Several concepts for inflatable space stations followed in the 1960s, Launius said, but concerns about micrometeoroid strikes and other qualms prompted their abandonment.
Additionally, experts at NASA’s Langley Research Center came up with a concept to put together a series of six rigid modules that were connected by inflatable passageways coming off a central non‑rotating hub, thus making another sort of hub‑and‑spoke design. That NASA Langley structure would self-deploy after being tossed into orbit atop a huge Saturn 5 rocket.
In the 1990s inflatables returned to the space engineering vocabulary and several concepts were pursued both at NASA and in the private sector, Launius said.
When NASA was exploring a return to the Moon and Mars in the early 1990s the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory came up with a concept for inflatable space structures.
“I am delighted that this one [Genesis-1] has now flown,” Launius said. “It is a step forward. When matched with launch technologies that would make it accessible … it might help open Earth orbit for a much broader range of participants. I hope so, but there are still a lot of challenges yet to be overcome. I am both impressed and hopeful that it will signal the beginning of orbital space tourism,” Launius said.
In some ways the roots of Bigel ow’s success go back some 20 years ago to U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s push to encourage private investment in space, said Robert Brumley, former chairman of Reagan’s commercial space working group and also former general counsel for the U.S. Department of Commerce.
“Bigelow has proven that, against all odds, a business plan can succeed,” Brumley said. The next issue, he said , is the private space group’s ability to achieve scale and scope, identify habitat customers and determine how this capacity can best be used for downstream products and services. For this, the ball is in Bigelow’s court.
For NASA, it has taken two decades — along with the tragic loss of shuttle Challenger and Columbia crews — for the space agency to look at itself and realize a key truth, Brumley said.
“The engineers, astronauts and others inside NASA know that their future, if they are going to have a future, is going to depend heavily on a transition from a government-owned and operated program to a commercially supported program,” Brumley said . NASA cannot stand in the way, he added, as either a regulator, a manager or as a competitor.
“The institution now realizes that they have to think like consumers, as purchasers of services … not owners and controllers of design, engineering and hardware,” Brumley said.