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Robert Bigelow
Robert Bigelow giving the keynote address at the NewSpace 2006 conference in Las Vegas on July 21. (credit: J. Foust)

Bigelow Aerospace’s big day at the rodeo

The menagerie of entrepreneurial space, or “NewSpace”, companies, have taken vastly different approaches to public relations. At one extreme are the companies that have been very open about the status of their development efforts, sharing the latest news—good or bad—with the media and the public. Armadillo Aerospace, for example, blogs essentially all the details of their work, replete with video and photos, regardless of success or failure. SpaceX has also provided regular updates on their efforts direct from company founder Elon Musk, although those updates have been less frequent in recent months. At the other extreme are those companies who go to great efforts to stay out of the public eye. Scaled Composites kept the development of SpaceShipOne under tight wraps—an approach it is also using for SpaceShipTwo—while Blue Origin has disclosed virtually no details about their vehicle outside of a federally-mandated environmental assessment report.

For most of its history, Bigelow Aerospace has been in the same camp as those secretive companies. While the company was founded back in 1999, the company has shared few details of its work to develop inflatable orbital habitats based on technology developed but later abandoned by NASA. However, the company has been gradually warming to the media and the public, and those efforts accelerated this month with the successful launch of its first spacecraft, Genesis 1. (See “Genesis and the future space hotel”, The Space Review, July 17, 2006). Bigelow Aerospace and its founder, Robert Bigelow, are now very much in the public eye.

“I’m on cloud nine over this success,” Bigelow said. “I think it’s really profound for me personally and for the company in general.”

In the last week, thanks to the fortunate coincidence of the Genesis 1 launch and the Space Frontier Foundation’s NewSpace 2006 conference, which took place July 19–23 in Bigelow Aerospace’s hometown of Las Vegas, the company has opened the door wider than ever. On July 20 the company hosted journalists, many of whom were in town for NewSpace 2006, for a press conference and tour of its manufacturing facility in North Las Vegas. The following day Bigelow gave a keynote address at the NewSpace conference, and earlier in the week he sat down for an extended one-on-one interview. Combined, these events have provided the best picture to date of both the current work and the future plans of one of the most intriguing space companies in operation today.

Genesis 1

When a Dnepr—an SS-18 ICBM converted into a launch vehicle—lifted off from an ICBM base in Russia on July 12th carrying the Genesis 1 spacecraft, the person who was perhaps the most pessimistic about the chances of success for the mission was Bigelow himself. “All of our teams were quite confident that we were going to have a success,” he said in an interview one week after the launch. “I was one of the few Doubting Thomases that kind of stood back and said, ‘Yeah, but I’m not going to believe it until it happens.’”

Despite that initial skepticism, the spacecraft has turned out to be a major success, with few technical issues that the mission team is dealing with. “I’m on cloud nine over this success,” Bigelow said at a July 20th press conference at the company’s factory. “I think it’s really profound for me personally and for the company in general.”

One minor complication that the company is dealing with is a very slow end-over-end tumble Genesis 1 is exhibiting, taking six minutes to complete one revolution. That has made it difficult for controllers to maintain a lock with the spacecraft’s high-bandwidth S-band antenna, instead relying on a lower-bandwidth UHF antenna. That tumble will be damped out in the next few weeks using the spacecraft’s magnetic torquer rods, according to project officials.

Despite the communications limitation they have been able to return about 500 images from Genesis 1 through July 20, primarily low-resolution “thumbnail” images, according to Roger Gonzales, IT director for Bigelow Aerospace. Only a handful of images have been posted on the site, since Bigelow said he himself likes to keep a hand in the dissemination of information to the public, and he had been out of town for a few days prior to last week’s press conference and interview. “They try to run the majority of things by me” before it’s posted online.

While all the images released to date have been of the exterior of Genesis 1, Bigelow showed in an interview images that have been returned of the interior of the module. Those images have not been released yet, he explained, because they show corporate logos attached to the interior walls of the spacecraft (used primarily to help calibrate the interior cameras) and the company is still seeking permission from those companies to post those images online.

With the spacecraft in orbit, the principal goal is to test the spacecraft’s key subsystems and see how well, and how long, they operate. “Just about everything is connected one way or another to endurance,” Bigelow said.

“The weakest link is power,” said program manager Eric Haakonstad at the press conference. He said that prior to the launch they hoped to put the spacecraft into an orbit that would last three to seven years before decaying, but the post-launch orbital elements indicated that the spacecraft would last between seven and thirteen years before decay.

“This is kind of like a laboratory for us,” Bigelow said. “We’re learning every single day about things that we otherwise would have no chance, no opportunity to learn.”

The company has goals for the mission beyond engineering tests, Bigelow added. “Other things we get out of this include calibrating the public interest,” he said. “I think that the other thing is calibrating ourselves in administering communications, command, and control of the spacecraft.” This last point will become critical over time, he noted, since the company is planning to launch prototype spacecraft every six months, and thus will have to be able to efficiently operate multiple spacecraft simultaneously within a few years.

“This is kind of like a laboratory for us,” Bigelow said. “We’re learning every single day about things that we otherwise would have no chance, no opportunity to learn. It’s a pathfinder demonstrator in many ways, not just for hardware and software.”

Export control woes

Given the technical success the mission has enjoyed to date, it’s not surprising that the biggest problem the company has had to deal with has nothing to do with engineering. “The technological challenges are huge, but in my way of thinking that is not on top of the list of things that can hurt you,” he said in his NewSpace conference keynote speech. “What is on top of the list is politics. If you do not have the political environment or political permission to conduct a particular activity, the technology doesn’t make any difference.”

Bigelow in particular has been concerned about the current export control regime, his experience with which he summarized in a single word: “horrible”. “Our State Department has no incentive to promote and assist a smooth relationship between domestic and foreign partners,” he said.

He gave one example of the difficulties of dealing with ITAR when the company built a shipping platform for Genesis 1, a simple metal structure he said looked like “an upside-down card table.” “Initially they had a fit about this structure being exposed, being observed by the Russians,” he said, referring to export control inspectors. “In their minds they were adamant that this was a violation of ITAR rules.”

Bigelow did emphasize that his problems with the export control process were with the procedures and the “ferocious” paperwork, and not the people administering them. “There are a couple of folks in the ITAR department that we’ve been working with that have not been in disagreement with us” about these issues, he said. “So our relationship isn’t bad.”

Bigelow in particular has been concerned about the current export control regime, his experience with which he summarized in a single word: “horrible”.

One concern Bigelow noted about ITAR is that its onerous requirements become, in effect, a barrier to entry for new firms, protecting the existing large aerospace companies with large, experienced export control staffs. “We don’t have an army of attorneys,” he said, adding that he had heard that Lockheed Martin, by comparison, had over 200 attorneys working on the issue.

Bigelow believes the best way to deal with the issue is to build support for moving export control for space hardware back to the Commerce Department, where it resided before the move to the State Department in the late 1990s. “I think that was a big mistake,” he said of the move. “I applaud any effort to move it back to the Department of Commerce.”

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