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Genesis 1 illustration
Bolsteed by the success of its Genesis 1 spacecraft (above), the company is accelerating its plans to develop a full-scale orbital habitat. (credit: Bigelow Aerospace)

Revisiting Bigelow

Last week Bigelow Aerospace and its founder, Robert Bigelow, surprised many in the space industry with a pair of announcements. First, Bigelow Aerospace announced that it had signed an agreement with Lockheed Martin to study the potential use of Lockheed’s Atlas 5 rocket to launch manned spacecraft that could service future orbital habitats planned by Bigelow. That announcement came the same day that Bigelow, speaking at the Space 2006 conference in San Jose, California, announced that the next spacecraft that the company would launch after next January’s flight of Genesis 2 would be a much larger facility called Sundancer, set to fly in late 2009 or early 2010.

How surprising are these developments? In some respects these announcements reflect a considerable break from what Bigelow’s publicly announced plans for the company were as recently as a couple months ago. At the same time, revisiting some of the comments made by Robert Bigelow a couple months ago reveals some hints about those plans that at the time were easily overlooked.

How surprising are these developments? In some respects these announcements reflect a considerable break from what Bigelow’s publicly announced plans for the company were as recently as a couple months ago.

The first hint that big changes were afoot at Bigelow came on August 11, when the company announced that the “Fly Your Stuff” program—an initiative where, as the name suggests, people could fly their photos or small items on future Bigelow spacecraft—would end after just the first mission for the program. The company was vague in its reasons for the early end to the program, citing both the “outstanding performance” of Genesis 1 and “domestic and international issues forecast over the next four to five years bearing upon America’s transportation and launch deficits” (an odd statement not explained further in the brief release). The company offered to provide more details in an announcement early next year.

The sharp change in direction was particularly surprising since, just a few weeks earlier, Robert Bigelow was talking up the long-term potential of the Fly Your Stuff program. In a July 19 interview Bigelow said that the program (which he described as being “50 percent subscribed” for the small items at the time, and less so for photos) was a key reason the company had emerged from the veil of secrecy that had surrounded its work for years:

[Media outreach] is a beneficial activity now and the reason is that now we’re reaching out to the general public on the Fly Your Stuff program. We are very involved with experimenting with—and this is a grand experiment all of its own—is this whole activity of outreaching to the public. It’s all part of the adventure. We’re captivated by the adventure here, many different things. Part of the adventure is exploring whether the public is going to be interested with how they can interact with what we’re doing, so we created some ways, several months ago, for that to happen using the web site as the venue for that. The obvious thing too is that when you launch something the cat’s out of the bag. There’s no way in the world you can be launching things and still stay in a shell and treat your operation as a black project. Now we want people to know what we’re going, we want them to be involved, and we’re launching so often—every six months—there would be no way or purpose to hide that.

In a speech two days later at the Space Frontier Foundation’s NewSpace 2006 conference in Bigelow’s home town of Las Vegas, he added that Fly Your Stuff was also part an effort to diversify the company’s revenue streams:

From an income standpoint and a business standpoint in our sense, because of the huge amount of dollars that have to go out for launches as well as for the development of the destination, you really can’t depend on any one income stream. I think one of the valuable experiences we’re trying to gain in the next four to five years is a thorough understanding of what kind of streams can be generated from a robotic application and how far can we take that worldwide.
Did the “outstanding performance” of Genesis 1 convince the company that it could skip ahead? Or was there some kind of external impetus, such as the lack of affordable launch options?

The reason why Fly Your Stuff is ending, it appears, is not because of a lack of interest by the company, but instead by a lack of flight opportunities. That is also a sharp change for the company, which previously planned to launch inflatable spacecraft as frequently as twice a year, gradually increasing their size and sophistication. That pace of missions was also intended to help deal with problems during development, as Bigelow explained in his NewSpace speech:

Problems no doubt are going to happen. I believe that Murphy is alive and well and I believe that is going to happen. We’re trying to mitigate that through the volume of flights, flying every six months, it’s a very impressive schedule. Without the Russian help we couldn’t do that. It would not be financially or physically possible to do that without the Russian help.

Evidently something significant had to take place for Bigelow Aerospace to backtrack on those carefully-laid and widely-promoted plans. Did the “outstanding performance” of Genesis 1 convince the company that it could skip ahead? Or was there some kind of external impetus, such as the lack of affordable launch options from Russia or elsewhere, which forced the company’s hand? Right now, the company isn’t being more specific.

The second major announcement last week, the agreement between Bigelow and Lockheed to study man-rating the Atlas 5, was less surprising than one might have expected. While Bigelow has spoken fondly of companies like SpaceX (with whom Bigelow does have a launch contract for an unspecified payload), he made it clear in his July interview that he was agnostic when it came to his preference for launch providers:

We’re a customer for whomever can produce an economical, reliable, safe transportation system that’s user friendly. It’s the other half of the coin. You have to have some place to go, but what good is an exotic island if there are no boats to get you there? One hand holds the other. We hope that over the next half-dozen years that as we go forward that, if we are able to make improvements and evolve towards full scale, other people will be doing something similar in this country.

And, at a July 20 press conference at the company’s manufacturing facility:

There ought to be a success over the next several years in that category. We think we can perpetuate the success under our program over the next several years if by nothing else the sheer volume of flights, the sheer number of flights that we’re going to throw at this problem. And then we hope someone comes along with either a CEV knockoff or some other kind of capsule, and a launch vehicle, either a SSTO or multiple stage to orbit, that we can afford.

In his NewSpace speech, in fact, he mentions the Atlas 5 by name as he outlines his transportation needs once his full-scale orbital habitat becomes operational:

In our third year of operation we estimate that we will need 20 launches. We need 16 launches for people and four launches for cargo. We’ve talked a lot about this over the last year and visited with a lot with one company in particular and a second company secondarily and we would be most happy if a crew return vehicle and hab vehicle for transportation purposes could carry eight people. The artifact of eight people is really a function of cost. It helps to reduce the seat cost. If you can still have an affordable seat cost and fly five people, that’s fine. If you have a five-meter diameter on your crew return vehicle, you can accommodate eight folks in that architecture, and that can fly on a system like the Atlas 5 401/402 series, or it could fly perhaps on the Falcon 9 if Elon [Musk] is of a mind to do that.
One thing is for certain, though: it will be surprising if there aren’t additional surprises like this from the company in the next few years.

In retrospect, it appears that Lockheed Martin was probably one of the two companies that Bigelow had discussed this with, although whether it was the primary one or the secondary one isn’t clear. Lockheed is also positioned, perhaps, to develop a “CEV knockoff” after winning the Orion contract from NASA last month, although last week’s announcement did not extend to the development of crew vehicles that could fly atop the Atlas 5.

What are the long-term implications of these developments? The space blogosphere has been chattering about it for the last several days, discussing what Bigelow’s plans really are, but given the incomplete information currently in hand, that speculation is just that. One thing is for certain, though: it will be surprising if there aren’t additional surprises like this from the company in the next few years.


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