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Nautilus
Bigelow Aerospace is pursuing Nautilus, a program of inflatable space habitats that can be used for tourism or research. (credit: Bigelow Aerospace)

Thinking big at Bigelow Aerospace

Not Philip, but Philip’s gold, took the cities of Greece.
—Plutarch, Life of Paulus Aemilius

Bigelow Aerospace (BA), owned by Robert Bigelow, is the new center of attention for the space industry now that the Ansari X Prize has been won. The America’s Space Prize, the inflatable habitats, the business strategies, thought leadership, and philanthropy all distinguish BA and Bigelow as the next big thing in space ideas.

Think big

The new America’s Space Prize is an audacious way to jumpstart the development of the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) capabilities that NASA has been seeking, but doing it fast and cheap. With a $50-million prize to get five people to orbit within 60 days, BA is taking a logical next step in the development of private space transportation. The strategy of offering a prize itself may provide another existence proof that prizes are a great policy to promote development; a BA prize leads NASA by example.

By pledging up to $500 million to research inflatable habitat design, Bigelow is making space stations a lot cheaper than what NASA currently spends, as well as shaking up the space world in yet another way.

Going from suborbital to orbital is very difficult, as the orbital companies like to remind us. The higher fuel mass fraction, more stages, higher velocity, and greater thermal protection requirements make orbital a steep learning curve. (See Clark Lindsey’s “Suborbital spaceflight: a road to orbit or a dead end?”, The Space Review, December 15, 2003) But with the passage of HR 5382 potentially easing testing requirements and, more importantly, possibly opening the money spigot, the prize’s Clarke-esque January 10, 2010 deadline seems feasible, especially with potential competitors such as Elon Musk from SpaceX with a launcher that might do the job. We’ll see if BA gets any insurance companies to take him up on a bet against him. BA has a selfish motive for funding the prize: they want to get a transport system that can reach their orbital space habitat.

By pledging up to $500 million to research inflatable habitat design, Bigelow is making space stations a lot cheaper than what NASA currently spends, as well as shaking up the space world in yet another way. Bigelow told the Las Vegas Mercury, “The big contractors have been charging NASA 50 times what something costs.” If BA succeeds in achieving its vision of $100 million for a 334-cubic-meter space station (one-quarter the volume of the International Space Station) and can launch it for another $70 million, four of them would indeed be less than 2% of what NASA will end up paying for the ISS.

BA’s multi-sourcing is also being aped by t/Space’s vision for NASA. The launching of two Genesis Pathfinders, one on a US vehicle and another on a foreign launcher, is a brilliant way to keep from getting held over a barrel in the long-lead-time endeavor of space development. There is a firm basis in economics for desiring ongoing competition that is the motivation for anti-trust policy at the national level.

BA is also leading by example when it calls for federal open contracts for space services like the old airmail contracts. The America’s Space Prize is likely to be followed by $200 million in conditional purchase agreements for six flights and options for another 24 flights at $800 million. $33.3 million to orbit for four passengers works out to $8.3 million a head. If you top it up for depreciation of the station during the 60-day stay, you can probably offer 60 days in orbit for $10 million. That would be less than one-tenth the cost per night that Dennis Tito paid for his one-week stay. I guess they are taking a play out of Robert Bigelow’s Budget Suites of America playbook and going for extended stays.

BA has a vision for commercial research thriving in space stations. This is the scientific and manufacturing vision that was used to sell the space station to the American public. These days, BA sees the promise of research more clearly than does a beaten NASA that cannot even make the case to fully staff the ISS with researchers.

The vision of pharmaceuticals through new ways of protein folding in zero-g is an exciting vision.

Analyzing the manufacturing business propositions on BA’s web site for commercial space research, there is certainly some optimism there. Large zeolyte crystals may be worth $400 million in improved gasoline burning efficiency, but what would the net benefit be after retooling and re-engineering the nation’s fleet of cars, not to mention paying for the on-orbit manufacturing? Who needs ZBLAN optical fiber that can carry 100 times more data than today’s silica-based lines if wave division multiplexing already has given us 100 times as much bandwidth on fiber as we want to build switches for? I already addressed the marginal case for space-based solar until fossil fuels get really expensive (See “Review: Out of Gas” The Space Review, September 27, 2004).

The vision of pharmaceuticals through new ways of protein folding in zero-g is an exciting vision. A few thousand kilograms of active ingredients of pharmaceuticals can produce 30 million doses of 100 mg each. If the drug’s active ingredient sells for $5/dose wholesale, that’s a $150-million cargo. If 3-D semiconductors are the wave (drip?) of the future and the only way to do the etching is in zero-g, perhaps a zero-G fab could turn out 100 million one-gram 3-D cores that are worth $100 each: that’s $10 billion in production. It might require 16 kilograms of water to process that chiplet, however, so the recycling better be pretty good. These business cases seem a little marginal to me if delivery costs are still $2,000 per kilogram. That’s only $6 million for the three thousand kilograms of pharmaceuticals, but the factory and waste-to-be would cost quite a bit to port up into space. Yet perhaps research could identify some protein-folding gimmick in zero-g that can then be replicated on Earth once people know it’s feasible.

It took Nixon to go to China. Perhaps it takes Bigelow, owner of a hotel chain, to say that a space lab is more viable than a space hotel. However, once you build the station, there is no zoning in space. If the Nautilus does not work as a lab, perhaps it can be rented out to second-honeymooners.

Facilitating tourism by putting the habitats on the Moon, using them as Earth-Moon and Earth-Mars cyclers, tethering them together and spinning them up so visitors can have a gradual introduction to zero-g like the no gravity flights and putting the habitats on Mars may offer some places that people will want to visit longer than 60 days or perhaps emigrate to. That may be the future that BA opens up with its habitat and its humble LEO-bound ambitions for them.

Big thinker

Bigelow himself is an interesting character. He appears to be hedging his bets a little by donating $7 million to the University of Nevada Las Vegas including endowing the Bigelow Physics Building, yet was also purported to be on the Board of the Rhine Research Center and the National Institute for Discovery Sciences.

Whatever it is that motivates Bigelow to fund space habitats, he is certainly providing more good in my estimation than Ted Turner’s billion-dollar donation to the United Nations.

I am a little surprised that Bigelow does not appear in the Forbes 400, which finishes off at $750 million. He has, according to his bio, “many thousands of apartment units and many thousands of hotel rooms in 4 states including the hotel chain Budget Suites of America” under his belt. The 23 Budget Suites properties would probably not get him the $2.3 billion that Motel 6 got selling out 550 properties to Accor in 1990. But someone like him saying he is ready to invest up to $500 million probably is not kidding.

Whatever it is that motivates Bigelow to fund space habitats—whether it is research, manufacturing, tourism, or facilitating the search for extraterrestrial intelligence—he is certainly providing more good in my estimation than Ted Turner’s billion-dollar donation to the United Nations. Space altruism could benefit from having a big tent for ideas. And if we hook enough Nautiluses together, Bigelow will have the biggest space tent around.


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