Bigelow Aerospace Sets a Business Trajectory
While its Genesis 1 expandable module circles the Earth, Bigelow Aerospace of North Las Vegas, Nev., is preparing a follow-on inflatable spacecraft for launch and getting ready to unveil its long-term business plan for space habitats.
As an entrepreneurial space development company, Bigelow Aerospace has as its primary focus the development of habitable complexes for a multitude of space users.
The firm's first foothold in Earth orbit was the Genesis 1 module, which launched July 12, 2006, atop a Dnepr booster under contract with ISC Kosmotras, a Russian and Ukrainian rocket-for-hire company. The booster -- a silo-launched converted Cold War SS-18 ICBM -- roared skyward from the Yasny Launch Base, an active Russian strategic missile facility.
After reaching orbit, Genesis 1 expanded from a diameter of about five feet (1.5 meters) to a configuration that is now more than eight feet (2.44 meters) across. In its pressurized, fully expanded status, the module yields 406 cubic feet (11.5 cubic meters) of usable volume and is energized by eight solar arrays -- four on each end of the structure.
Genesis 1 remains in excellent shape, along with healthy avionics and is exhibiting good thermal conditions as it orbits Earth, said Robert Bigelow, founder and president of Bigelow Aerospace, as well as owner of the Budget Suites of America Hotel Chain, among other enterprises.
Last December, Genesis 1 took a major radiation hit from a solar storm. "It knocked us for a loop ... it hit us pretty hard. Our mission control operators [in Las Vegas] had to redo and reboot the complete system," Bigelow told Space News in a March 15 telephone interview. "We were one fault away from the spacecraft being dead had we not succeeded in rebooting all the systems."
Bigelow's next space module, Genesis 2, is now being prepped for shipment to Russia. It is scheduled to be launched via a Dnepr rocket within the first quarter of this year, said Mike Gold, corporate counsel for Bigelow Aerospace in Washington.
"Certainly, Genesis 1 has prepared us for the Genesis 2 mission, both in terms of experience with the hardware and experience with operating the systems. The true value of Genesis 1 is occurring now and that is proving its durability and validity over a period of time. It has both exceeded our expectations and resulted in accelerating our schedule," Gold said in a March 13 interview.
Genesis 2 will carry several new systems -- such as reaction wheels for attitude control as well as a distributed, multi-tank inflation system -- an improvement on the single-tank design of Genesis 1.
"By using multiple tanks, the reliability of the inflation process is increased and allows for discrete gas control. This is the next evolutionary step toward maintaining the multiple gas supplies needed for our future man-tended vehicles," Eric Haakonstad, program manager for Bigelow Aerospace, says on the company's Web site: www.bigelowaerospace.com.
Genesis 2 also sports a significant avionics enhancement with much more redundancy, Bigelow said. Genesis 2 will carry 22 cameras, nearly double the number on board Genesis 1. There also will be two exterior projection systems designed to demonstrate the casting of messages onto the spacecraft's exterior "for ad purposes or just for fun," Bigelow said.
Additionally, the Genesis 2 mission includes a "Fly Your Stuff" program whereby customers for a fee can see their own objects floating in microgravity inside the module. An experimental "Space Bingo" project is also to be conducted utilizing Genesis 2.
New ground control stations also are being readied for Genesis 2 in Alaska and Hawaii. The new facilities will augment the central mission control center in Las Vegas, and will make it possible to communicate with Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 for about 5 hours a day, Bigelow said. "We've increased the ground control staff ... we have new people coming on board this year," he said.
Bigelow Aerospace is taking a stepping-stone approach to the development of its space modules. Next in line is the larger Galaxy module the company plans to launch in the latter part of 2008. The entrepreneurial firm's habitat plans then lead to Sundancer -- a module that will provide 180 cubic meters of habitable space and come fully equipped with life-support systems, attitude control, on-orbit maneuverability, as well as reboost and deorbit capability. This larger module -- sporting a trio of windows -- could support a three-person crew and be on orbit in the second half of 2010, Bigelow said.
While Bigelow Aerospace is making strides in the development of its modules, one ongoing headache is the export control and regulatory process, be it International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) or telemetry issues, Gold said. "If anything, the regulatory procedures have been more difficult for Genesis 2 than Genesis 1. It rivals, if not exceeds, the technological difficulties that we face."
While improvements in dealing with ITAR are sorely needed, Gold saluted the Defense Technology Security Administration's Spacelink system -- a newly overhauled Internet portal that is simple, easy to use and responsive to space companies like Bigelow Aerospace.
"It's a good example of efficient, effective and simple government regulatory interaction. The old Spacelink system was like trying to figure out a Rubik's Cube with a blindfold on ... while the new system is trying to do a Rubik's Cube in a lighted room when it has been solved already," Gold told Space News. "Export control and ITAR are a barrier to entry for small entrepreneurial firms. Particularly in aerospace, in this day and age, you can't have a cost-effective and innovative operation without international participation," he added.
Yet another arena that needs tackling is the issue of space transportation and the high price of access to space. "Almost more than my snoring dog, that's what keeps me up at night," Gold said.
In April, during the National Space Symposium to be held in Colorado Springs, Colo., Bigelow plans to roll out his firm's business plan -- a strategic approach that he admits has been under wraps for several years.
"We think we have some innovative ways that people have not been considering in terms of pushing the private sector movement forward," Bigelow told Space News. "It was decided that the sooner we start to talk about this the better."
To date, Bigelow said, he has invested more than $90 million in Bigelow Aerospace. As a general contractor for 35 years, "we're not strangers to contracting, to banking, to the financing of major projects. That's crucial if you really want to get the financial horsepower involved. No. 1, the business model has to serve a customer. No. 2 is it has to be very cost-effective and No. 3 is that it has got to do what it says it's going to do. The banking world appreciates that and they respond ... Wall Street responds in predictable ways."
Bigelow said the business structure that the company will outline next month will not only support destinations in low Earth orbit, but also operations on the Moon and at Mars.
Bigelow said what he plans to spotlight in April are categories of destinations that transform space from just being a place of curiosity to being a place of absolute global necessity. "I think we're going to be a very good customer for the spaceport community ... a very good customer for the launch folks as well. In detailing our plans, you'll see a very, very solid terrestrial corollary to the real estate world that is huge. All we're doing is adapting that entire structure to space."
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