Bigelow Aerospace Soars with Private Space Station Deals

Aprivate space company offering room on inflatable space habitats forresearchhas found a robust international market, with eager clients signing upfromspace agencies, government departments and research groups.

Spaceentrepreneur Robert Bigelow, chief of Bigelow Aerospace, has been busymarketing his privatespace modules, an outreach effort leading to six deals beingsigned withclients this year.

The deals,in the form of memorandums of understanding, involve Japan, theNetherlands,Singapore, Sweden, Australia and the United Kingdom.

"Theseare countries that do not want to be hostage to just what theInternationalSpace Station may or may not deliver," Bigelow told SPACE.com in anexclusive interview. [BigelowAerospace plans private moon bases.]

Bigelowfounded Bigelow Aerospace in 1999, headquartered in Las Vegas, drawingupon hisconstruction, real estate, and hotel savvy to forge the use ofexpandable spacestructures. To date, he has spent more than $200 million to hammer outhis businessplan for space.

Steel inthe air

Some of thatprivate cash was spent to hurl two of his firm's prototype expandablespacemodules into orbit. The company's Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 test modules,loftedin July 2006 and in June 2007, served as forerunners to ever-larger andhuman-rated space structures.

Morerecently, some $20 million of Bigelow?s cash has flowed into asprawling,185,000 square-foot expansion to his North Las Vegas facilities, abuildingthat enables the churning out of biggerspacehabitats.

"Thatexpansion is currently under way. We broke ground a few months ago.We've got alot of steel in the air," Bigelow said. But more newsworthy, he said,isthe signing of memorandums of understanding to make use of thecompany?sexpandable space structures.

"I'malso in the middle of developing a new client leasing guide that willbeavailable toward the end of the year. It will have new and excitingpricingopportunities that are very dramatic," Bigelow said."We want to openup the window and doors for a lot of participation for folks that needto spendless."

Robustand global

A questionthat continues to float through the halls of NASA and the Congress: Isthere acommercial market for utilizing space?

"We?vegot a very certain and loud answer to that. Not only is there acommercialmarket, but it's a one that's robust and global," said Michael Gold,director of Washington, D.C., operations and business growth forBigelowAerospace.

The memorandumshave been signed with what Gold said the firm terms as "sovereignclients"? the result of a relatively modest effort to pulse "internationalastronautics opportunities" with countries large and small.

Bigelow saidwhat they have found is a hunger by clients to do activities in spacefarbeyond just microgravity experimentation.

"Thatis what this new leasing guide is going to expose," Bigelow said. "It?sencouraging to see the enthusiasm. They all have different reasons,differentways in which they see using our facilities ? what I call 'dynamicassets' inthe new leasing guide ? to benefit them. It can change the face of anation."

Gold saidthat some $100 billion has been spent on the InternationalSpace Station.

"Allthat money to create an amazing laboratory environment in space ? butwhen itcomes to actually doing something with it, what?s being spent onutilization isrelatively paltry," Gold emphasized. "It?s like purchasing aLamborghini and then spending five dollars on gas."

Whilecountries in Asia and Europe take commercial advantage of space, "myfearis that this could become yet another extremely lucrative economicopportunitythat is engendered here ? and then shipped overseas," Gold cautioned."The U.S. Congress should spend less time questioning the business caseofthe commercial market. They need to spend more time trying to figureout how togrow that market and ensure that it happens here in the United States."

Tried andtrue

Still, whilethere is "palpable enthusiasm," according to Gold, by clients to useBigelow space facilities, getting customers back and forth to low-Earthorbitremains to be solved.

Boeing andBigelow Aerospace have been working together on access to aBigelow-providedOrbital Space Complex, making use of Boeing'sCST-100 capsule being pursued under NASA?s Commercial CrewDevelopment(CCDev) program.

CST-100, forCrew Space Transportation, is being designed to fly without crew orwith asmany as seven astronauts. [Video:Boeing's New Spacecraft]

Gold underscoredthe "great potential" of the Atlas 5 booster.

"Wehave much more confidence in regards to the crew transportationsolution sincethere is, arguably, no system safer, more reliable and morecost-effective thanleveraging the tried and true Atlas 5 with a capsule built by Boeing ontop ofit," he said. "It has a track record. It exists. That?s a messagethat has resonated quite well with the international clients."

There hasbeen discussion, Gold said, that cost savings and safety are mutuallyexclusive.

"TheAtlas 5 is an example of how those two actually go hand in hand. Thatrocket?sflight heritage will create the safety that we demand and our customersrequire," he concluded.

LeonardDavid has been reporting on the space industry for more than fivedecades. Heis past editor-in-chief of the National Space Society's Ad Astra andSpaceWorld magazines and has written for SPACE.com since 1999.

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