Bigelow Aerospace’s big day at the rodeo
As nearly a big a concern for Bigelow Aerospace over the long term is transportation to and from its planned orbiting habitats. “It’s the other half of the coin,” he said. “You have to have someplace to go, but what good is a great exotic island if there are no boats to get you there?”
Bigelow tried to tackle that problem a couple of years ago with the America’s Space Prize, a $50-million award to the first team able to develop a five-person spacecraft that could fly to a Bigelow facility twice before January 10, 2010. However, the response to the prize has been disappointing. “We had forty-some different groups contact us regarding that prize, and during those contacts it was pretty obvious that while they were interested in the prize, they lacked entirely the wherewithal financially go after that prize,” Bigelow said.
One exception to that was SpaceX, he said. However, the company would be disqualified from competing for the prize since they have accepted government money in violation of the rules. Despite the lack of success with the prize, he said there are no plans to change the prize rules or increase the purse. “We’re going to leave it as it is because our thoughts are moving on to either a foreign solution to transportation or a domestic derivative” of a vehicle developed as part of NASA’s COTS effort to develop commercial space station transportation options.
He also didn’t rule out purchasing services from a “CEV knockoff” that might be developed by the winning contractor to serve commercial markets. “We’re a customer for whomever can produce an economical, reliable, safe transportation system that’s user friendly.”
The principal market that most people have attributed to Bigelow’s full-sized habitats is as “space hotels”, where space tourists can stay during their time in orbit. But while Bigelow is a supporter of space tourism in general, he doesn’t think that market is that big. “That’s all fine and good, but it’s still going to be an expensive proposition for a long time,” he said. “Most people don’t have that kind of money, so the quantity of tourists is going to be fairly few.”
A much larger market, he believes, is serving government space agencies, particularly those who may be interested in a manned space program but don’t have the money to develop, build, and launch their own spacecraft and space stations. “What we see down the road is, if you have affordable and reliable transportation systems, and if you have affordable and reliable destinations, you’re probably going to see tremendous growth, maybe 60 or 70 countries, who are really motivated to have astronauts corps,” he said.
These new national space programs, he explained, would lease space on Bigelow facilities and fly their astronauts to and from them as needed to carry out their research programs. He estimated that the number of professional astronauts worldwide might grow to between 5,000 and 7,000, and for purposes of national prestige as much as scientific research.
“If countries sense they are losing their science or space advantages by not getting involved in space science, that’s a big motivation to get involved and protect your country,” he said. “They’re doing it for image.” Moreover, he noted, these governments are far more likely to be able to afford orbital flights than individual tourists. As a result, “there will be many more times the traffic of professional astronauts than amateurs.”
In the near term, though, the company is trying to develop a market by flying personal items into space through its “Fly Your Stuff” program. For $295 the company will fly a photo on its future spacecraft; the company can also accommodate small items. The response to that program since its announcement last month has been strong, he said, although it is still something of an experiment to see what kind of revenue streams such efforts can create for the company while it develops larger modules.
Getting to the point where Bigelow will have orbital habitats available for lease to national space agencies and others will require a series of missions to develop the required technology, of which Genesis 1 is only the start. The next step will come late this year, when another Dnepr will launch Genesis 2. Bigelow described the spacecraft as a “sister” of Genesis 1, but with a few changes, such as more cameras on the spacecraft (18, versus the 13 on Genesis 1). “We’re making sure each of these pathfinders move one step closer and closer to full scale.”
Another change on Genesis 2 will be the addition of more “living systems” inside the spacecraft. Genesis 1 carries some cockroaches and Mexican jumping beans, he said, “but we have no idea if the little buggers are dead or live right now” because of a lack of data on them from the spacecraft. (The delay in launching the spacecraft—booster problems caused the launch to be delayed by about a month—had led to concerns that the creatures may have been packed in the spacecraft for too long.) Genesis 2, Bigelow said, will carry ant farms, scorpions, and spiders, among other animals.
After Genesis 2 comes a larger spacecraft, Galaxy, that is scheduled for launch in 2007. “That spacecraft will have significant changes in physical size and volume, as well as more efficient structures,” said Jay Ingham, a mechanical engineer at Bigelow Aerospace. Robert Bigelow later said that Galaxy will have twice the volume—23 cubic meters—than Genesis. The efficient design, though, will still allow the spacecraft to fit within a Dnepr, although larger vehicles may require a shift to bigger rockets, such as the SpaceX Falcon 9.
The long-term plan is to have the full-sized habitat, the BA 330 (so named because of its 330 cubic meters of interior volume) ready by 2012. Low Earth orbit, though, is only what Bigelow calls “phase 1” of his plans; “phase 2” is sending such modules on missions to the Moon and beyond. “That’s a program that we’re only just a tiny bit involved in right now, and as the years go by hopefully that can expand more and more.”
While Bigelow doesn’t think that orbital space tourism will constitute a major market for his company’s vehicles for the foreseeable future, he is optimistic about the prospects of suborbital space tourism. “That is the first step towards orbiting people, and I think that helps to build the industry,” he said. “I think people, as a first step, have a suborbital experience that’s safe, then their appetite’s really going to be whetted for getting into space.”
The current burst in entrepreneurial activity looks superficially similar to another such surge in the latter half of the 1990s, but Bigelow doesn’t think the two are the same. “There’s one big important difference, and that is that the economics is totally different,” he said. “There’s really no comparison at all between the cost those companies endured in the 1990s for communications purposes and what these companies are facing as an expenditure for suborbital purposes.”
Other major differences he noted include the diversity among the small companies developing suborbital vehicles and the assistance NASA is promising to orbital vehicle developers through the COTS program, “People can say that $500 million isn’t nearly enough, but the fact is that it’s still a unique offering that has never happened before,” he said. “That helps the climate a lot.”
Bigelow said that he has invested in some of these entrepreneurial ventures, but didn’t identify which ones, or how much. In the other direction, he said he has received “no major inquiries” about investing in the company, but didn’t rule out at some point taking the company public. “We would want to do that when we had some revenue streams and we were further along with the maturity of our operations,” he said.
Why open up
Bigelow admits that the company has done a good job until recently staying out of the press. “We’ve flown under the radar quite successfully,” he said. “We really didn’t have any motivation, there really wasn’t any reason to beat the drums.” The few interviews he did back in 2003 and 2004 were “time-consuming and a distraction” at that time, he said.
What’s changed, though, is that now they have something to sell to the general public through the Fly Your Stuff program. “We are very involved with experimenting—and this is a grand experiment all of its own—with outreaching to the public,” he said. “We’re captivated by the adventure here, and part of the adventure is exploring whether the public is going to be interested.”
There is also a more practical aspect for being more open to the media and public. “When you launch something, the cat’s out of the bag,” he said. The result is “spinning around 180 degrees” from shunning attention to seeking it. “Now we want folks to know what it is we’re doing, we want them to be involved, and we’re launching so frequently—once every six months—that there would be no way to hide that.”
The media attention has had another practical benefit for the company, which has struggled at times to find qualified employees, particularly in a place like Las Vegas without a substantial aerospace industry. “In the last week we’ve had a tremendous increase in [job] application traffic to our web site,” he said. “It’s going to be a help in attracting good engineers and other people.”
More than a week after the launch of Genesis 1, Bigelow still sounds dumbfounded a bit about the degree of success the mission has enjoyed. “This is our first rodeo, and nobody wins first prize in calf roping, bull dogging, bull riding, and barrel racing,” he said. “And, in a sense, that’s what we did, by comparison, our first time at the big show.”