Building on lessons they continue to learn from their two space modules still operating in low Earth orbit, the team at Bigelow Aerospace of North Las Vegas, Nev., is accelerating its push to get a habitable version launched.

The initial focus of that work is Sundancer, a larger version of the subscale Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 spacecraft now in orbit. Sundancer will have 175 cubic meters of habitable space and come fully equipped with life support systems, attitude control, on-orbit maneuvering systems, the ability to reboost itself and, at the end of its life, the ability to conduct a controlled deorbit. It would support a crew of up to three individuals for varying mission durations and eventually provide the backbone for the first commercial space station.

"We're trying to offer to folks, for multiple kinds of uses, a reliable environment that can be used for varying types of purposes. So we're kind of the wholesalers of space," Bigelow Aerospace President Robert Bigelow said July 30 in an exclusive interview with Space News.

"This is a little bit like 'if you build it, they will come,'" Bigelow said. And they are coming. During the course of the next three months, prospective users from the biotech, pharmaceutical and medical research fields are all slated to visit the company's Las Vegas facilities for a look at the progress the company is making on Sundancer, Bigelow said.

Drawing on the cash generated by other companies in his large suite of enterprises ? such as his hotel and real estate businesses ? Bigelow said he had put $150 million into Bigelow Aerospace as of April. In 1999, the entrepreneurial Bigelow said he was prepared to spend $500 million by 2015. That remains a valid number, he said July 30.

Bigelow Aerospace announced in May it had inked a nearly $5 million contract with Orion Propulsion Inc. of Huntsville, Ala., to supply the attitude control system for the forward end of Sundancer. Also that same month, the company announced that Aerojet-General Corp. of Sacramento, Calif., had been awarded a $23 million deal to supply the propulsion system for the aft end of Sundancer, as well as a system to handle rendezvous and docking.

In addition, Bigelow said the firm's work on life support gear is very encouraging. "The testing already indicates we're definitely on the right track," he said.

Sundancer is intended to be a progressive step toward the company's planned BA-330 orbital habitat, which it intends to make its standard for the future. The "330" denotes the cubic meters of that module's internal volume (11653.8 cubic feet).

The first Bigelow Aerospace space complex would comprise two Sundancer-class modules, a docking node and propulsion bus combination, as well as a single BA-330, Bigelow said.

The company already has expanded its sprawling complex of buildings and test facilities. Work on a new 175,800-square foot (16,335-square meter) structure ? building A3 ? already is under way and scheduled to be completed by December 2009. Adjacent to the site is a new nearly 4.9-acre (2-hectare) parking lot.

Bigelow said the new facilities are needed to set up an assembly line for producing large space modules and associated propulsion buses and docking nodes. "Our ambition and goal for this new building is to be able to handle the fabrication of two full standards per year and one, possibly two, propulsion buses and docking nodes per year," Bigelow said.

Follow-on facility

The erection of building A3, and the lessons learned in its creation, are expected to serve as a template for a follow-on facility, perhaps sited in a location like Florida, New Mexico, Texas or California perhaps, Bigelow said.

"In some ways we would prefer being close to our launch facilities. But there could be various ways to make it so attractive that locating away from those launch facilities is advantageous to go ahead and pay for shipping everything else," Bigelow said.

"We're not ready to do this next week. But we know that it's coming," Bigelow continued, suggesting that such a plant might offer 484,000 square feet (45,000 square meters) of work space. "The quantity of spacecraft we can produce is hugely a function of how much room ? we have to work in."

Bigelow said he and his team plan to have two Sundancer modules flight-ready by the end of 2011, as well as a docking node and propulsion bus system. By the end of 2012, the firm plans to have its first full BA-300 standard vessel ready for flight as well. "That's regardless of whatever happens transportation-wise," he added, referring to the company's ongoing search for a suitable launcher to get its hardware into orbit.

The plan is to have at least six launches in one year. "When we start to rock and roll, we need to really move out," Bigelow explained. The intent of the company is to bundle the purchasing of six launchers, both medium-lifters and a heavy-lifter, to loft all elements of their first commercial space complex, including crew and cargo.

Also under way is expansion of a global network of ground stations. Four nodes are now in operation monitoring the Genesis 1 and Genesis 2. With the prospect that human occupation of the first private space complex is possible within five years, perhaps as many as 10 ground stations are being considered, Bigelow said.

The Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 modules were placed into orbit July 12, 2006, and June 28, 2007, respectively, via Dnepr boosters from the ISC Kosmotras Yasny Cosmodrome, located in the Orenburg region of Russia. Both spacecraft remain in excellent shape, demonstrating the viability of expandable structures in Earth orbit, Bigelow said.

While enthusiastic about his space module work, boosting his space venture into orbit remains a wearisome matter, Bigelow said. What he wants to avoid is devoting money to fighting a two-front war, he said. That is, spending his resources on destination and devoting capital to transportation. "If we don't do that, we're going to be OK."

What bothers Bigelow about boosters is, "If we're going to put our clients on boosters, I want to damn well be sure that there's significant amount of seconds on testing of a motor configuration," he said.

"I applaud the efforts of Lockheed Martin ? and the efforts of [Space Exploration Technologies Corp.]," he added, in terms of U.S. booster capability. "We would like to see a time when there's not a single [launch] supplier in the U.S., much less worldwide."

"The crew transportation issue is certainly challenging, and it keeps me up at night more often than my infant son ? and that's saying something," said Mike Gold, director of Bigelow Aerospace's Washington office. However, there is hope, he added.

"We have been and are in discussions with a number of entities, old and new, large and small, about crew transportation. We're looking at a variety of ideas from traditional to innovative, and while certainly all of our options are still open, some progress has been made," Gold told Space News in an Aug. 1 e-mail.

Gold said that, ideally, the success of Genesis 1 and 2, the ongoing construction of Sundancer, coupled with the overall financial and technological commitment Bigelow Aerospace has made to expandable space habitats "will help act as an incentive toward the development of affordable and reliable low Earth orbit crew transportation systems."