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Illustration of inflatables on Moon
Bigelow Aerospace is currently looking into using its inflatables on the Moon. However, their primary focus is still on their initial low Earth orbit development. (credit: Phil Smith courtesy of Sam Dinkin)

Assaying Gold at Bigelow Aerospace

Mike Gold is corporate counsel of Bigelow Aerospace.

Bigelow Aerospace is a privately-held company Las Vegas, Nevada company that is investing up to $500 million in the development of inflatable habitats and $50 million in the America’s Space Prize.

See also the backgrounder.

The Space Review: What is Bigelow Aerospace’s (BA’s) dream for space?

Mike Gold: Our dream and goal is to create a vibrant, dynamic, thriving marketplace in space.

TSR: What is your role at BA?

Gold: I wear many hats at BA, which is a good thing since my hairline recedes a bit more each day. As Corporate Counsel I of course handle many of the company’s legal issues, with the exception of intellectual property (IP) where I enjoy the excellent assistance of our IP counsel, who is based in Las Vegas. I am responsible for the company’s interaction with NASA, as well as all other federal entities such as the FAA, OSTP, etc. In addition to the federal government I oversee many of Bigelow Aerospace’s interactions with other corporations such as SpaceX, Kosmotras, and Lockheed Martin. With the able assistance of former NASA Chief of Staff Courtney Stadd, I also interface with Congressional officials. Finally, I also am the company’s point person for all media requests and interviews such as this one.

TSR: Are your lawyer friends jealous?

Gold: Not really, we try and keep a relatively low profile.

TSR: Do you also have a technical background?

It’s like working for a cross between the Wright Brothers and Jack Welch.

Gold: I have spent my entire career working aerospace-related issues in one way or another. From my initial clerkship with NASA Langley to my work at Patton Boggs, I’ve had a constant exposure to high tech. Although I do not have any formal technical training, you certainly pick up quite a bit of that while working on the legal and policy side of the aisle.

TSR: What is the firm’s motivation?

Gold: The firm’s motivation is to see this nation and this world live up to its potential and realize the incredible promise that microgravity-based research and development has to offer.

TSR: Do you all want to go to space yourselves?

Gold: While I don’t think any of us would mind going to space there is so much work to do here on the ground that we don’t have a lot of time even to think about traveling to space personally.

TSR: Who is your space hero?

Gold: That is easy, Robert Bigelow. The vision he displays and the sacrifice he is making are without equal. I cannot say enough about the respect I have for what he is trying to accomplish. It’s like working for a cross between the Wright Brothers and Jack Welch.

TSR: What is Robert Bigelow's secret of success in life?

Gold: Good subcontracting management. The same rules hold true whether you’re building an apartment complex or a space station. Solid management practices don’t change when you get to microgravity. Always have multiple lines in the water. Start at the top and move your way down. Mr. Bigelow has a great deal of wisdom and I learn something new every day I work for him.

TSR: Mr. Bigelow is on record saying that space research customers are the ones you are looking for. Why seek these customers when his Budget Suites of America attracts as many leisure travelers as business travelers?

Gold: In order to create a real, thriving private sector space industry we are eventually going to need more than tourism. Ultimately, we feel that it will be applications derived from space research that will drive the engine of space development. Most likely, the greatest innovations that will support a microgravity-based industry have yet to be discovered, which is why we have a strong interest in space researchers as a customer base. To be clear, we certainly don’t mean to take anything away from space tourism. Space tourism is a wonderful way to support the development of infrastructure that will make further commercial activities possible. However, I think we prefer to view space tourism as a beginning rather than an ending.

TSR: What’s a night in orbit going to cost? Flat rate or by the pound?

I think we prefer to view space tourism as a beginning rather than an ending.

Gold: We’re looking at being able to produce our full-scale inflatable habitat for $100 million per unit or less. It’s difficult at this juncture to provide you with much more fidelity than that, since, ultimately, the final price tag will be driven by not just the space habitat, but by the cost of launch services which is an area that BA does not have exclusive control over.

TSR: [If the 20,000-23,000kg full-scale Nautilus, with one-quarter the volume of the ISS, can be launched whole in one heavy launch perhaps on a Proton, the launch price will be $70 million not including astronauts, but with the surplus in heavy launch capacity the rack rate may be high.]

Are you taking reservations?

Gold: No, although we are open to discussing possible collaborations with government and industry organizations that have an interest in the space/microgravity arena.

TSR: Can you spin these modules up for gravity? Tethered together?

Gold: It’s possible, however, since we’re interested in pursuing the benefits of microgravity we haven’t spent a great deal of time on this sort of thing.

TSR: Any thoughts on how your structures will differ on the Moon and Mars? Any problems if you bury the inflatables in lunar dirt? Can you turn one into a Mars cycler?

Gold: We’re currently looking into many of those issues. However, our primary focus is still on the initial low Earth orbit development.

TSR: What kind of industrial and private demand do you see at a $6 million price point for an orbital ticket? (E.g., 5 paying folks on top a Falcon 5 for about $30 million per launch.) About what the Futron-Zogby numbers are (60 people a year in 2021)?

Gold: Hopefully there will be significant demand at those prices. However, as Yogi Berra says, it’s difficult to make predictions, particularly about the future.

TSR: Are you going to give 25,000 frequent flier miles per orbit?

Gold: No, but our window view will be much better than what you get on your average flight from DC to New York.

TSR: Will space hotel technology make Earth living better? Smaller footprint? Lower resource use?

We’re looking at being able to produce our full-scale inflatable habitat for $100 million per unit or less.

Gold: Very likely. Specifically, the technologies developed in microgravity could have a revolutionary impact here on Earth. Developing microgravity-based manufacturing capabilities could represent a quantum leap up the chain of technological achievement, and drive new innovations in everything from advanced materials fabrication to biotech.

TSR: Will successful space products in 15 years look more like IBM mainframes, Apple Macintoshes, or Dell laptops?

Gold: None of the above, I think the space products of the future could look more like something Pfizer would produce than IBM.

TSR: Do you see an opening in the new space business ecosystem?

Gold: Biotech/Pharmaceuticals… You could conduct an entire new [field of research as groundbreaking as the] human genome project in microgravity, and I don’t think the industry currently realizes the vast potential for critical advances that microgravity offers. There has been some work done on this at NASA, but I believe they’re just scraping the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

TSR: Tip of the comet you mean.

How did BA decide to join NASA in development?

Gold: NASA has some valuable human capital and of course shares an interest in space development. It has been a pleasure collaborating with some of the many fine people at the agency.

TSR: Have you guys raised any private equity? Ever going to offer a piece of BA to anyone else?

Gold:No, all of our funding is provided exclusively by Mr. Bigelow. I doubt that we will offer pieces of BA to anyone in the foreseeable future. The fact that BA can operate without a board or shareholders means we can make quick, efficient decisions and carry very low overhead. I don’t know why we would ever want to change that.

TSR: What milestones should we watch for from BA in the next five years?

Gold: In the near future, you can look for the launch of our Genesis Pathfinder spacecraft.

TSR: [Genesis Pathfinder is expected to be launched in the November 2005 time frame on SpaceX’s Falcon V’s maiden flight and again in April 2006 on an ISC Kosmotras Dnepr.]

Why is the America’s Space Prize restricted to ships that take five or more people twice in 60 days instead of 10 people total in 60 days perhaps as few as one per flight?

Gold: The only reason to sponsor the America’s Space Prize is to create a system substantially more affordable and capable than what is available under the status quo. You can already potentially send three astronauts up on a Soyuz, being able to take five [twice] in a two-month period is the logical next step. It’s certainly ambitious, but, we have to be somewhere around there because when you start to fall below five people [twice] in 60 days the business case for the system begins to look worse and worse.

TSR: Are you restricting the prize to American residents? Do you get a better, faster, cheaper rocket by opening it up to everyone in the world like the Ansari X Prize?

Gold: We aren’t. To be eligible for America’s Space Prize we require that a company be domiciled in the U.S. and have its principal place of business in the U.S. Assuming a foreign entity is prepared to meet these two criteria they would be able to participate in the competition.

Also, I would remind you that the difference between suborbital and orbital is dramatic to say the least.

TSR: What other space policies do you like besides prizes? Space patents? Federal open contracts like airmail contracts? R&D subsidies or spending? Good regulation?

A few months ago I stayed up all night on a particularly difficult project, and with no sleep I was still thrilled to come to work in the morning. It’s an amazing experience and I am grateful every day for getting to be a part of it.

Gold: We’re very supportive of open federal contracts. Instead of the government picking a winner they could simply put out a notice that they will pay X dollars for Y service and let the entrepreneurs and the private sector figure out the details. If done correctly, open federal contracts could operate in a very similar fashion to prizes. Good regulation is also critical. The less time entrepreneurs spend caught up in red tape and administrative/political hassles the more likely they are to succeed.

TSR: What is our obligation as a species if we are the first intelligent life in the galaxy?

Gold: Given the immense size and scope of the galaxy I would be surprised if we are the first intelligent civilization to develop. I try and keep an open mind on this sort of thing and firmly believe that, when we do meet a form of life sufficiently advanced and sophisticated to conquer the vastness of space, that they would unquestionably root for the Boston Red Sox, and therefore represent truly intelligent life.

TSR: Or may wear red socks on their roots. Do you think there is a new Manifest Destiny?

Gold: For the good of all of humanity I believe we have a responsibility to seize the opportunities that are given to us and realize our full social and technological potential. Developing microgravity-based resources will represent an important first step along this path.

TSR: Are you overcome by the coolness of what you are doing the way Burt Rutan is about what he’s doing?

Gold: [T]he best way that I can describe to you my feelings for this work is to tell you that a few months ago I stayed up all night on a particularly difficult project, and with no sleep I was still thrilled to come to work in the morning. It’s an amazing experience and I am grateful every day for getting to be a part of it.