By Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 12, 2007
Private space exploration took a potentially significant step forward this week as Nevada-based Bigelow Aerospace announced plans to send a series of inflatable space stations into orbit over the next decade.
The spacecraft, initially designed by NASA for use with the International Space Station, would be available to train astronauts from nations not currently active in space, as well as companies that could manufacture unique products in weightlessness.
"We think the time will come when orbiting space complexes won't be considered a novelty, but a necessity," said Bigelow's president, Robert Bigelow, who made a fortune as founder of Budget Suites hotel chain.
"When the first satellites went up, they were a novelty, too," he said. "Now they are a major business with enormous commercial importance. This is a logical next step."
The announcement comes at a heady time for private space entrepreneurs. The rocket company SpaceX, founded by Pay Pal billionaire Elon Musk, had its most successful test launch to date last month. Voters in New Mexico this month passed a referendum to raise taxes to help build a spaceport for Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic space tourism company.
Bigelow already has a prototype of its planned station in orbit and is scheduled to launch a second on a Russian rocket later this month. The prototype Genesis II will launch from Orenberg, Russia, and will carry a payload that includes a Madagascar giant hissing cockroach, scorpions, an ant farm, and an internal camera to watch their acclimation to space. The first Bigelow vessel designed to house a human crew, called Sundancer, is now in development and is scheduled to launch by the end of 2010.
Putting the inflatable space stations into orbit is an enormously expensive and risky endeavor, but Bigelow said that his private company has the resources to develop, test and launch the vessels. He plans to greatly expand the company's plant in North Las Vegas so he can eventually assemble two 300-cubic-foot model space stations a year.
Bigelow's company is not building a rocket system to take astronauts into space, but he said he is working closely with several private companies that are now developing and testing inexpensive launch vehicles. The space stations would orbit at roughly the same altitude as the current space station -- about 225 miles above Earth.
The announcement came just after Robert Bigelow, one of a new generation of billionaire space entrepreneurs, won the private space industry's annual Space Achievement Award for the successful launch of his prototype inflatable space station last June. The Genesis I, which is still orbiting, will be followed by a series of larger and more sophisticated vessels -- with a first functioning space complex by 2013 and a set of three complexes by 2017, Bigelow said.
The main purpose of the space stations -- earlier called space hotels -- will be to provide "hang time," or time in weightlessness, for astronauts from nations that have no rights to use the International Space Station. Bigelow said he believes there are 50 to 60 nations that might be interested in sending astronauts into space to train and conduct experiments.
"There are something like 225 active astronauts in the world now, but we don't see why there shouldn't be 2,250," Bigelow said. "The technology is there and the interest is there; we want to bring them together."
Bigelow Aerospace purchased the rights to the inflatable station design from NASA. Bigelow said he expects the design to bring down the cost of living in space substantially. He tentatively plans to charge $14.9 million a seat for a trip to the station and a four-week stay, substantially less than the cost of the space shuttle or what space tourists now pay Russia for trips to the space station. Bigelow detailed his plans Tuesday at the Space Foundation annual meeting in Colorado Springs.
The inflatable stations, initially designed to be dormitories for the international space station, are made of a flexible material that Bigelow said is more effective than today's hard-walled spacecraft in keeping out harmful radiation and deflecting meteorites. He said the walls of the modules would feature cushions filled with water, which is one of the best materials to block highly-charged radiation.
The space industry has drawn in other wealthy entrepreneurs, including Amazon's Jeff Bezos; John Carmack, who created the video games Doom and Quake; Microsoft's co-founder Paul Allen; and James Benson, who founded the rocket company SpaceDev in 1997. The industry has long promised great things that later were scrapped because of technological and financial hurdles
Bigelow was briefly in the news last year because of his earlier association with former senator Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), who won numerous earmarks designed to create a space industry in Montana. According to published reports, Bigelow and his chief counsel were generous contributors to Burns and to Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.), who both worked to bring government funds to a Montana collaboration that included Bigelow for a short time.