Bigelow's Big Gamble: Building a Space Station
The outer surface of the Genesis-1's inflatable skin, including thermal insulation and debris protection is visible in this picture. Measuring 8-feet in diameter, the module is a prototype of the firm's expanding interest in providing habitable space in Earth orbit. Image
Credit: Bigelow Aerospace

The Genesis-1 module orbiting the Earth not only transmits its temperature, integrity, power levels and overall health--it also signals entrepreneurial zeal and private sector spunk.

As a pathfinder demonstrator spacecraft, the Genesis-1 mission marks the birth of a long-term vision to build and orbit space structures for commercial and public use. Footing the bill on this business venture--now gauged at upwards of a $75 million outlay--is Robert Bigelow. He is owner of the Budget Suites of America Hotel Chain among other endeavors and is the module mogul of Bigelow Aerospace in North Las Vegas, Nevada.

Last week's launch of the Genesis-1 atop a Russian and Ukrainian booster is a step "to transform the dream of a robust human presence in space into a reality," Bigelow has said. Still, there's also need for a reality check on that promissory note.

Orbital excellence

SPACE.com asked prominent leaders in various space fields to appraise Bigelow's down payment on the future.

"This is as close as it gets to entrepreneurial orbital excellence ... funded by private Bigelow dollars and an operating, subscale, test space station on-orbit," said Burt Rutan, head of Scaled Composites in Mojave, California.

Rutan and his team are busy building suborbital space transportation for the flying public--a fleet of SpaceShipTwo vessels and carrier motherships. He said that he heartily congratulates Bigelow...as do many of the other "little guys" in the new industry.

"Pioneers like this are what it takes to get out of our three-decades-long period of no progress toward opening the frontier for the people," Rutan explained. "Go, Bob! Go!"

Access, demand and platform

Bigelow's stick-to-it space entrepreneurship was saluted by Scott Hubbard, former director of NASA's Ames Research Center and now a visiting scholar at Stanford University and Carl Sagan chair at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California.

Hubbard has been working with a team of seven Stanford Master of Business Administration (MBA) graduate students to evaluate the business case for the emerging space industry. 

"In my analysis of the emerging entrepreneurial space industry there are three key elements to create a market ... low cost space access, demand from the marketplace and a platform in low Earth orbit," Hubbard said.

In this triad of access, demand and platform, Hubbard noted, the Bigelow team has taken a giant step toward demonstrating private sector capability in the third element. "And I suspect Bigelow has some clever ideas about stimulating demand."

Delivering on promises

Making public space travel a reality will require putting together a lot of separate pieces, including a reliable and affordable transportation system and an orbital outpost as a destination, suggested John Logsdon, Director of the Space Policy Institute within the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

The launch of Genesis-1, Logsdon continued, is an important milestone along that path. "It is refreshing to see a private sector venture that is delivering on its promises," he said.

Bigelow Aerospace obtaining an export license for their module technology is significant, spotlighted Jerry Grey, Director, Science and Technology Policy for the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA).

Grey said that there's no uniqueness about a private-sector payload--hundreds of commercial satellites have been orbited--many with export licenses for Russian launchers. There is significance in showcasing an expandable structure in space, he added.

"But such structures are not unique," Grey explained. "NASA had done several experiments on inflatables in space," he said, "although not very successfully ... and there are many designs that have not as yet flown."

However, Bigelow's success does deserve high marks, Grey emphasized, "in view of the few successes in space entrepreneurship to date ... as compared to, say, computers and other electronic system entrepreneurs."

Glance back in time

Bigelow's Genesis-1 and the firm's plan for larger expandable vessels spur some to evoke back-to-the-future facts.

For instance, in the early 1980s, a private U.S. firm--Space Industries, Inc.--wanted to move forward on an Industrial Space Facility (ISF). While not an inflatable habitat, it was to be a free-flying facility that ran on its own and would crank out electronic materials, pharmaceuticals, and other specialty goods. Crews would visit the ISF to reap its bounty of made-in-space products. The idea dead-ended.

Taking a glance back in time, inflatables in space have been considered for years, observed Roger Launius, Chair of the Smithsonian Institution's Division of Space History at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

In terms of inflatable predecessors, he added, the Goodyear Aircraft Corporation in 1961 designed a 24-foot two-person inner tube-like inflatable space station.

Challenges yet to be overcome

Several concepts for inflatable space stations followed in the 1960s, Launius said, but concerns about micrometeoroid strikes and other qualms prompted their abandonment.

Additionally, experts at NASA's Langley Research Center came up with a concept to put together a series of six rigid modules that were connected by inflatable passageways coming off a central non‑rotating hub, thus making another sort of hub‑and‑spoke design. That NASA Langley structure would self-deploy after being tossed into orbit atop a huge Saturn V rocket.

In the 1990s inflatables returned to the space engineering vocabulary and several concepts were pursued both at NASA and in the private sector, Launius said.

"I am delighted that this one [Genesis-1] has now flown," the space historian told SPACE.com. "It is a step forward. When matched with launch technologies that would make it accessible...it might help open Earth orbit for a much broader range of participants. I hope so, but there are still a lot of challenges yet to be overcome. I am both impressed and hopeful that it will signal the beginning of orbital space tourism," Launius said.

NASA: Get out of the way reality

A space policy retrofire--back some 20 years ago to President Ronald Reagan's push to encourage private investment in space--is tied to and enabling Bigelow's quest, along with others, in the present-day private-sector space realm.

That's the view of Robert Brumley, former chairman of Reagan's commercial space working group and also former general counsel for the U.S. Department of Commerce.

"Bigelow has proven that, against all odds, a business plan can succeed," Brumley said. The next issue, he advised, is the private space group's ability to achieve scale and scope...identifying habitat customers...and how this capacity can best be used for downstream products and services. For this, the ball is in Bigelow's court.

For NASA, it has taken two decades--along with the tragic loss of shuttle Challenger and Columbia crews--for the space agency to look at itself and realize a key, get out of the way truth, Brumley said.

"The engineers, astronauts, and others inside NASA know that their future, if they are going to have a future, is going to depend heavily on a transition from a government-owned and operated program to a commercially supported program," Brumley stated. NASA can't stand in the way, he added, as either a regulator, a manager, or as a competitor.

"The institution now realizes that they have to think like consumers, as purchasers of services ... not owners and controllers of design, engineering and hardware," Brumley said.