Michael Gold. Credit: SSL

With the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama considering a proposal to turn over low Earth orbit to the private sector, small entrepreneurial space companies like Bigelow Aerospace are angling for a piece of the action. In August a White House-appointed panel tasked with determining a range of affordable and innovative options for NASA’s manned space program recommended that $2.5 billion be doled out to the private sector to stimulate development of a commercial crew capability to low Earth orbit.

Like other small space startups, Bigelow is poised to capitalize on the panel’s recommendations. The North Las Vegas-based company has already completed two successful launches of its inflatable space modules, Genesis 1 and 2. Owned by Las Vegas hotel mogul Robert Bigelow, the company is now planning a larger, habitable space laboratory that could foster cooperative scientific efforts among an international corps of astronauts. Dubbed Sundancer, the inflatable space station is on track to launch in 2011.

Bigelow’s counsel and director of Washington operations, Mike Gold, says the company’s primary challenge is finding a way to get people to and from Sundancer.

In July, Gold briefed the blue-ribbon panel, led by former Lockheed Martin chief Norm Augustine, on the company’s plan to develop a commercial crew capsule capable of launching aboard a man-rated version of the Atlas 5. Gold spoke with Space News staff writer Amy Klamper about Bigelow’s goals in low Earth orbit, the company’s recent success over U.S. export control regulations, and the challenges NASA may face in adapting to a commercially driven space program.


Because your boss, Robert Bigelow, made his money in the real estate and hospitality industries, some see Sundancer as an orbital hotel for space tourists. Is that an accurate characterization?

No. What we’re really doing is building the equivalent of a national lab in orbit. We believe the primary drivers of this will be two things: microgravity research and development, and developing an international astronaut corps. As we conducted our preliminary business development efforts, we have been surprised by the enthusiasm for this. You have countries like Japan that participate in the international space station (ISS) program but would like to have more astronauts there at lower prices, as well as countries like Singapore that do not participate in ISS but potentially want to have their first astronauts in orbit. So there is a great deal of interest in increasing the amount of astronauts internationally and building an international astronaut corps that I think will be a very significant part of our business case.


What challenges do you face in populating space with astronauts?

Not only have we failed to progress in human space launch over the last decade, but we’ve actually fallen back. Bigelow’s problem is crew transportation. I have no way of getting crew to and from low Earth orbit. You don’t want to launch Sundancer until you have a reasonable explanation of how you are going to transport crew back and forth. We need an affordable, reliable, preferably domestic crew transportation system in development. The path that NASA is currently on we don’t believe will function at all. Even if it did, it would be so expensive, so complex, so difficult that it would be completely irrelevant and useless to the private sector. That’s the kind of thinking that NASA should change. They can no longer afford the luxury of doing things that can only be utilized by the government. Instead, they need to start developing things that can be utilized not only by other government agencies, but by the private sector as well.

What is Bigelow’s solution to the problem of space transportation?

Part of the reason that all of NASA’s previous human spaceflight transportation systems have failed is that they haven’t been realistic with regard to politics. There is not enough political will for long-sustaining space programs. If you’re going to do anything, it needs to be done in less than one presidential administration, and we believe the system that can offer that is putting a commercial capsule atop an Atlas 5. In a period of three-and-a-half years, we can have an operational system that will be robust, taking up to seven passengers to low Earth orbit on the rocket. And if NASA does it correctly, it can be done economically enough so that not just NASA, but the private sector can take advantage of it. If we are purchasing the Atlas system as well as NASA, that lowers the cost for everyone.


Bigelow Aerospace is known for leveraging existing technologies. What other innovations have aided the company’s success?

We hired Aerojet to build our aft thrusters and it was expensive, roughly a $24 million program. On the forward thrusters, we contracted with an entrepreneurial company, Orion Propulsion in Alabama, and they built an innovative propulsion system for much less money — about $5 million — that could take wastewater or reprocess urine and end up using it for fuel. So that’s the way we like to work — we always have to depend upon a more expensive, traditional system, as well as an alternative, innovative system that’s usually much cheaper but hasn’t been proven. If we can prove the system on orbit, it will become the baseline system. We recommend NASA do the same, so that regardless of what they’re primary government-sponsored program is, they would be foolish not to sponsor a commercial effort that is really pennies on the dollar relative to the large government program.


If NASA abandons Ares 1 as you suggest, what should it do for heavy lift?

There is great value to the shuttle stack. To throw all of that away is unwarranted and unwise. We should continue a program that uses a shuttle-derived system for cargo only. The best path forward is to leverage a shuttle-derived system for heavy lift, and combine it with crew transportation to low Earth orbit aboard a commercial Atlas 5 or eventually a commercial Falcon 9.


If the Obama administration opts to continue flying the space station through 2020, wouldn’t that put the government in competition with Bigelow’s commercial lab?

We view ISS as a complementary system, perhaps even a pilot program that can help demonstrate the viability of our overall program. If nothing else the ISS plays a vital role in creating a strong customer for commercial space launch that has been demonstrated by NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program. So having ISS in orbit is important for a number of reasons: It’s the height of lunacy that you spend $100 billion on a program and then abandon it a few scant years after it is complete; and from an entrepreneurial space perspective, it can serve as an important test bed for the development of  commercial crew transport. Now there are concerns about ISS competing with us, and NASA should be careful about competing with the private sector, but handled properly ISS can be a benefit to Bigelow Aerospace, rather than a negative. If we can’t deliver our services at a fraction of the cost of ISS then we have no business in business. Not only is our technology better, in the end lowering prices dramatically for space isn’t so much about technology as it is operating via common sense practices. There is a terrible dearth of brick-and-mortar common sense in the aerospace industry because of the fact that the only customer for many systems has been the government.


After spending over $1 million to pay for U.S. government monitoring and private security to meet U.S. export control requirements for launching Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 in Russia, you sought regulatory relief from International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), a suite of rules that govern U.S. exports of sensitive technology. How did that work out for you?

The first step was to file a commodity jurisdiction request with the government in December 2007. This is a legal review that is essentially a request for the State Department Director of Defense Trade Controls to determine whether a technology is under ITAR or under the Commerce Department’s Commerce Control List. Our argument was that our technology is benign, and not anything the Russians couldn’t do if they put their mind to it. I had several meetings with State Department personnel, and what we articulated was that we were not so much concerned with hardware itself as we are with the passenger experience. We could not function under the existing export control regime, nor can any of the other commercial space companies. It took a very long time, and involved a lot of people, but by February of 2009 we received the response.


And the response was favorable to Bigelow Aerospace’s request?

We’ve chosen not to release the ruling, but that said, this was a trailblazing request. What the response said is that Bigelow Aerospace’s passenger interactions and experience have been ruled as a non-licensable activity. This is an important point — our hardware remains under ITAR control. But the passenger experience has been ruled non-licensable, so in other words, we don’t need to file paperwork for foreign passengers to receive training on how to live and function aboard a Bigelow station. That includes being exposed to the hardware externally and internally, learning how to operate systems such as communications, how to connect hardware for water and air, ingress and egress procedures, and just being in the habitat. All of this would have required licenses previously. It has sustained us and opened a door for extraordinary employment opportunities to include development of a potentially new industry and innovative technological progress.