Business deals don’t get much bigger than this one. Have you ever read a contract that gives a governmental green light to a program to “place a base on the surface of the moon?” Ever see an agreement signed by the U.S. government that declares a specific goal “to extend and sustain human activities across the solar system?” Me, either.
Yet that is essence of an adventurous deal already reached between NASA and Las Vegas space entrepreneur Robert Bigelow. An official announcement is still a few days away and will likely happen during a news conference at NASA headquarters. In the meantime, I have a draft copy of what could be an historic contract, one that reads like a Kubrick screenplay or an Arthur C. Clarke story. It is flat-out otherworldly.
Bigelow made his fortune building apartment buildings and weekly-rental hotel rooms in Las Vegas. In 1999, he launched what must have seemed a pipe dream at the time — his own private space program. But within a few short years he stunned the aerospace world by launching two of his own locally built spacecraft, both of which still circle the Earth (and one of which contains my weightless, floating business card). The focus of Bigelow Aerospace is an expandable module, small and light enough to make for less expensive launches but so strong and durable when expanded to full size that it accomplishes what NASA has been unable to do on its own: It puts more space in space, that is, more room for companies and governments to work, live and conduct research.
Back in January, NASA bigwigs came to Bigelow’s main plant to announce a landmark deal that calls for one of Bigelow’s modules to be attached to the International Space Station (ISS) within two years. Bigelow used that occasion to let slip some even bigger news — the fact that he is spending $250 million of his own money to build a private space station, larger than the ISS, and that he plans to have it in low-Earth orbit by 2016. What few knew at the time was that he was secretly negotiating an even bigger deal with NASA, one that represents a fundamental, across-the-board change in our approach to space.
NASA has been coasting for a long time, kept alive by the now-distant memory of the moon landings and less spectacular but more important missions such as the Hubble and unmanned probes to Mars and beyond. Basically, NASA has become a job-protection racket, spending public dollars on programs and ideas that always seem to get cancelled. For instance, we spent tens of billions on the ISS but no longer have a way to get there.
The long-term answer has been well-known to NASA and the private space industry for a long time: Figure out how NASA can get out of the way and help private companies take the next step by commercializing space. Make it profitable for Americans to be up there, doing things that will ultimately benefit Earth. Few individuals in the aerospace world have been more critical of NASA than Bigelow, which makes the pending agreement all the more remarkable.
In a nutshell, NASA has decided that the best way to get Americans and American companies back into space is for the government to partner with private enterprise. To provide technical expertise and legal authority for bright, ambitious entrepreneurs to spend their own money on endeavors that will not only re-establish American supremacy in space but also get started on truly exciting long-range projects, including private space stations, as well as permanent bases on the moon, on Mars and beyond.
NASA has picked Bigelow Aerospace to be a linchpin of this new strategy. The agreement will formalize a series of strategic goals and timetables for the next Space Race. Bigelow’s company would become a clearinghouse of sorts. Its first assignment: to identify which other companies would be most valuable for NASA’s long-range goals, including permanent bases on other celestial bodies, the exploration of the most distant parts of our solar system, and commercial projects that could stimulate the U.S. economy. This is a marriage of American know-how, practical business goals and good, old-fashioned adventure.
Bigelow told me about some of the details in a radio interview a few days ago, but he is saving most of the specifics until NASA makes a formal announcement. From what I have seen, though, it is not hard to imagine our little desert community becoming the heart and soul of a wonderful new initiative that could inspire a new generation of explorers and pioneers who literally will go where no human has gone before.
THE WALKING MAN
Back when he was still a 22-year-old pup, future Las Vegas businessman John Cushman got the wild idea to take a little walk … from New York to San Diego. He did it to raise funs for Jerry’s Kids. It took him a mere 49 days to accomplish the feat, which means he averaged 60 miles per day. That’s a lot of walking.
Though he had only a few sponsors, Cushman raised a hefty chunk of dough for MDA. One sponsor was Southland Corp., better known as 7-Eleven. Another was a then-fledgling shoe company called Adidas, which donated the six pairs of athletic shoes he wore out during his jaunt.
Here we are, many years later. Cushman is now 60, a little grayer, a bit slower, but still interested in making a difference. So he’s going to do it again. But this time, he hopes to raise a lot more money and a lot of awareness too, especially if his trip is turned into a reality-TV show or is updated online each day.
Cushman has outlined an ambitious proposal and a list of possible sponsors, everything from shoe manufacturers to RV suppliers, cell-phone companies, you name it. He already has some nibbles from Hollywood folks, who are not only interested in seeing if John can survive a walk like this, but also are hoping the venture would focus on Cushman’s other primary interest — the paranormal.
Among his side ventures is a nonprofit outfit that stages Dinners with a Ghost in the old town of Goldfield. Cushman’s ghost-hunting venture is helping Goldfield preservationists raise funds to save the old schoolhouse and restore other quickly-decaying historical structures in one of our state’s most interesting towns. Cushman says he will use his reality show/walkabout to raise awareness for historic preservation causes, and Goldfield in particular. And he might even hustle up a ghost or two along his route.
GEORGE KNAPP is a Peabody Award-winning investigative reporter for KLAS Channel 8. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.