Robert Bigelow founded Bigelow Aerospace in 1999, bankrolling the company using some of his fortunes from construction, real estate deals and his hotel chain, Budget Suites of America.
Ten years and $180 million later, the sprawling complex Bigelow Aerospace occupies in North Las Vegas, Nevada, includes an assembly facility packed with fabrication hardware and tooling, test structures, and full-scale mockups of the firm’s three-person Sundancer module and the larger BA-330, a unit that offers 330 cubic meters of internal volume for a crew of six.
Sundancer and the BA-330 are the intended successors of the Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 prototype space modules launched in July 2006 and June 2007, respectively, atop Russian Dnepr boosters.
An on-site mission control center monitors the company’s spacecraft now in orbit and will control Bigelow Aerospace’s future space facilities. At present, the firm has four ground stations — in Alaska, Hawaii, Maine and Nevada — that serve as communications relays between the company’s spacecraft and the mission control center in Las Vegas.
In 2008, as part of developing the first commercial space habitat capable of supporting a human crew, Bigelow Aerospace contracted Sacramento, Calif.-based Aerojet to supply the aft propulsion system for Sundancer. That same year, Huntsville, Ala.-based Orion Propulsion — since acquired by Dynetics — was contracted to supply the attitude control system for the forward end of Sundancer.
In 2009, Bigelow unveiled the “Orion Lite” seven-person crew capsule design for low Earth orbit, a bare-bones copy of the Orion vehicle that Lockheed Martin Space Systems is developing for NASA.
Bigelow recently spoke with Space News correspondent Leonard David.
Has the global recession impacted your commercial venture?
It hurt everybody, including us. We hunkered down and became more conservative in what we were doing. We downsized in staff a little bit, but have started to rehire again.
One thing we postponed was the construction of our 24,000-square-meter A-3 building that will become the assembly line facility for mass production of our habitable spacecraft and the docking nodes attached to the power buses. I’m going to start bidding out that building again in the first quarter of 2010. It should be finished in November and cost about $20 million.
When do you foresee operation of your first station?
The long pole in the tent has been the transportation, and still is.
2014 is the year in which all the spacecraft components would be deployed and assembled. We need seven rocket flights to succeed. 2015 is designated as when the first station operations would actually begin. But that’s predicated on what is going to happen in 2010, with the Crew Transport Vehicle, the CTV. We are hoping SpaceX will have a successful lifter in Falcon 9 and is going to continue to work on getting its Dragon CTV operational.
So we’re hopeful that SpaceX is going to be there supplying boosters and also hopeful that the Atlas 5 is in there. We are anticipating United Launch Alliance is going to be a major supplier of our needs.
I also have a design for a “Big Bertha” spacecraft for NASA’s Ares 5. We can create a module that has twice the volume of the entire international space station. One module alone could have 2,100 cubic meters of volume. We’re volume productive, not mass concentrated. We produce many times the volume comparable to another volume that’s a metal structure.
Are you interested in working with Russia , making use of the Soyuz rocket?
Not really. It’s so impractical for us. It has nothing to do with lack of confidence in the performance of foreign systems. It has everything to do with the inconvenience of logistics.
And you learned that from your Genesis launches?
Yes, we did in spades. It was a nightmare. Not because of the Russians but because of the U.S. State Department. They were very difficult.
How are those two Genesis modules doing?
We’ve learned all we need to know out of those, basically, within the first six to 12 months after launch. There are a number of systems that are not now functioning. But we really don’t care. We’ve gotten so much data. They’ve served their purpose.
Has NASA considered use of your expandable modules for utilization on the international space station?
They contacted us a few months ago. We worked on something for them, gave them cost figures and the architecture for what they wanted. They were supposedly impressed and kind of surprised with how relatively inexpensive things were going to be. We don’t know what their intent is.
Would NASA’s use of Bigelow modules be a plus?
Absolutely. Any business that you can do with NASA is always a credibility booster.
But we also will take great pride in serving clients like Japan and other foreign clients. We have contacted a number of countries over the last 12 months and we look forward to evolving into agreements to serve their needs. We want to serve their needs according to what they are prepared to spend, and what kind of space future they want to design.
How much revenue do you anticipate from leasing your orbiting space facilities?
I don’t want to go broke because we have been careless and cavalier about estimating our expenses or because we have been really inefficient. But I also don’t want us to make too much money. If we make too much money, we are not maximizing the number of clients. So our goal is to maximize the number of clients, not maximize the dollar per client.
We want to help change the 21st century space future for maybe 50 or 60 countries, and I haven’t even talked about the corporate world. We’re more successful the more clients we have on our roster. To me, that’s the proudest symbol of success.
What about marketing your modules to corporate clients for such things as pharmaceutical research and microgravity materials processing?
That’s another ball game. In 2010, we need to move out significantly in our marketing efforts. We need to hire a couple of astronauts to be part of our marketing team.
One thing we discovered. A lot of the experiments that were flown were mishandled and were botched. Science teams couldn’t be held together long enough for experiments to fly after three or four years. Essentially, the research pond was contaminated and companies wanted to disassociate themselves from space.
I don’t think it has ever been given a fair chance. You have to have large enough facilities and opportunity for serendipitous events to evolve. You have to have time. It’s always been carried up in a tool box, so what do you expect? You can’t work out of a glove box of a car and expect that you are going to generate all kinds of miracle devices.
By the time you have people inhabit your first orbiting complex, how much money will you have invested?
By that time, I will have spent several hundred million dollars. So far, I’ve spent about $180 million. I will have spent that much at that time because that will be prior to any kinds of government contracts and prior to any kinds of client deposits.
The spacecraft are already in production, so there’s a confidence here that we believe in what we’re doing. When the client comes along, we have already put our money where our mouth is.