While its Genesis 1 expandable modulecircles the Earth, Bigelow Aerospace of NorthLas Vegas, Nev., is preparing a follow-on inflatable spacecraftfor launch and getting ready to unveil its long-term businessplan for space habitats.
As an entrepreneurial spacedevelopment company, BigelowAerospace has as its primary focus the development of habitable complexesfor a multitude of space users.
The firm's first foothold in Earthorbit was the Genesis1 module, which launched July 12, 2006, atop a Dnepr boosterunder contract with ISC Kosmotras, a Russian and Ukrainian rocket-for-hirecompany. The booster -- a silo-launched converted Cold War SS-18 ICBM -- roaredskyward from the Yasny Launch Base, an active Russian strategic missilefacility.
After reaching orbit, Genesis 1 expanded from a diameter of about five feet (1.5 meters) to a configuration that is now morethan eight feet (2.44 meters) across. In its pressurized, fully expanded status, the module yields 406cubic feet (11.5 cubic meters) of usable volume and is energized by eight solararrays -- four on each end of the structure.
Genesis 1 remains in excellentshape, along with healthy avionics and is exhibiting good thermal conditions asit orbits Earth, said Robert Bigelow, founder and president of BigelowAerospace, as well as owner of the Budget Suites of America Hotel Chain, amongother enterprises.
Last December, Genesis 1 took amajor radiation hit from a solar storm. "It knocked us for a loop ... it hitus pretty hard. Our mission control operators [in Las Vegas] had to redo and reboot thecomplete system," Bigelow told Space News in a March 15 telephoneinterview. "We were one fault away from the spacecraft being dead had we notsucceeded in rebooting all the systems."
Bigelow's next space module, Genesis2, is now being prepped for shipment to Russia. It is scheduled to be launched via a Dnepr rocket withinthe first quarter of this year, said Mike Gold, corporate counsel for BigelowAerospace in Washington.
"Certainly, Genesis 1 has preparedus for the Genesis 2 mission, both in terms of experience with the hardware andexperience with operating the systems. The true value of Genesis 1 is occurringnow and that is proving its durability and validity over a period of time. Ithas both exceeded our expectations and resulted in accelerating our schedule,"Gold said in a March 13 interview.
Genesis 2 will carry several newsystems -- such as reaction wheels for attitude control as well as adistributed, multi-tank inflation system -- an improvement on the single-tankdesign of Genesis 1.
"By using multiple tanks, thereliability of the inflation process is increased and allows for discrete gascontrol. This is the next evolutionary step toward maintaining the multiple gassupplies needed for our future man-tended vehicles," Eric Haakonstad, program manager forBigelow Aerospace, says on the company's Web site: www.bigelowaerospace.com.
Genesis 2 also sports a significantavionics enhancement with much more redundancy, Bigelow said. Genesis 2 will carry 22 cameras, nearlydouble the number on board Genesis 1. There also willbe two exterior projection systems designed todemonstrate the casting of messages onto thespacecraft's exterior "for ad purposes or just for fun," Bigelow said.
Additionally, the Genesis 2 missionincludes a "Fly Your Stuff" program whereby customers for a fee can see theirown objects floating in microgravity inside the module. An experimental "SpaceBingo" project is also to be conducted utilizing Genesis 2.
New ground control stations also arebeing readied for Genesis 2 in Alaska and Hawaii. The newfacilities will augment the central missioncontrol center in Las Vegas, and will make it possible to communicate withGenesis 1 and Genesis 2 for about 5 hours a day, Bigelow said. "We've increased theground control staff ... we have new people coming on board this year," he said.
Bigelow Aerospace is taking astepping-stone approach to the development of its space modules. Next in lineis the larger Galaxy module the company plans to launch in the latter part of 2008. Theentrepreneurial firm's habitat plans then lead to Sundancer -- a module thatwill 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 BigelowAerospace is making strides in the development of its modules, one ongoing headacheis the export control and regulatory process, be it International Traffic inArms Regulations (ITAR) or telemetry issues, Gold said. "Ifanything, the regulatory procedures have been more difficult for Genesis 2 thanGenesis 1. It rivals, if not exceeds, the technological difficulties that weface."
Whileimprovements in dealing with ITAR are sorely needed, Gold saluted the DefenseTechnology Security Administration's Spacelink system -- a newly overhauledInternet portal that is simple, easy to use andresponsive to space companies like Bigelow Aerospace.
"It's a goodexample of efficient, effective and simple government regulatory interaction.The old Spacelink system was like trying to figure out a Rubik's Cube with ablindfold on ... while the new system is trying to do a Rubik's Cube in a lightedroom when it has been solved already," Gold told Space News. "Exportcontrol 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-effectiveand innovative operation without international participation," he added.
Yet anotherarena that needs tackling is the issue of space transportation and the high price ofaccess to space. "Almost more than my snoring dog, that's what keeps me up atnight," Gold said.
In April,during the National Space Symposium to be held in Colorado Springs, Colo., Bigelowplans to roll out hisfirm's business plan -- a strategic approach that he admits has been under wrapsfor several years.
"We think wehave some innovative ways that people have not been considering in terms of pushingthe private sector movement forward," Bigelow told Space News. "It wasdecided that the sooner we start to talk about this the better."
To date,Bigelow said, he has invested more than $90million in Bigelow Aerospace. As a general contractor for 35 years, "we're notstrangers 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 businessmodel has to serve a customer. No. 2 is it has tobe very cost-effective and No. 3 is that it hasgot to do what it says it's going to do. The banking world appreciates that andthey respond ... Wall Street responds in predictable ways."
Bigelow saidthe business structure that the company will outlinenext month will not only support destinations in low Earth orbit, but alsooperations on the Moonand at Mars.
Bigelow saidwhat he plans to spotlight in April are categoriesof destinations that transform space from just being a place of curiosity tobeing a place of absolute global necessity. "I think we're going to be a verygood customer for the spaceport community ... a very good customer for the launchfolks as well. In detailing our plans, you'll see a very, very solidterrestrial corollary to the real estate world that is huge. All we're doing isadapting that entire structure to space."
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Leonard David is an award-winning space journalist who has been reporting on space activities for more than 50 years. Currently writing as Space.com's Space Insider Columnist among his other projects, Leonard has authored numerous books on space exploration, Mars missions and more, with his latest being "Moon Rush: The New Space Race" published in 2019 by National Geographic. He also wrote "Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet" released in 2016 by National Geographic. Leonard has served as a correspondent for SpaceNews, Scientific American and Aerospace America for the AIAA. He was received many awards, including the first Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History in 2015 at the AAS Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium. You can find out Leonard's latest project at his website and on Twitter.