A model of a concept space station made with Bigelow Aerospace habitat modules. AP PHOTO: JULIE JACOBSON
A 1962 issue of Popular Mechanics, which looks at America’s first inflatable space station. COURTESY: CHRIS AINSWORTH
Bigelow Aerospace sits on 50 acres of land in North Las Vegas, just a few miles south of the Craig Ranch Golf Course. I park in the small lot just inside the gate of the complex, where I am directed into the nearby security building.
Several other journalists are already present, along with a guard. After examining and recording IDs, we’re given badges and presented with the rules. No weapons allowed. No recording or photography outside the designated press areas. Keep your badge visible at all times, and always stay with an escort.
The guard hands us each a map. Guest parking and press room are highlighted green, unauthorized areas, aka the rest of the complex, are bright red.
We’re shuffled back outside. An SUV idles nearby as another guard explains that we’ll be following him to the interior parking lot. We get back into our cars and caravan a quarter-mile down a road called Warp Drive, into the sprawling complex.
In the summer of 1961, just months after Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit the Earth, a team of engineers at NASA and Goodyear Aircraft Corporation completed their two-year project: to develop and prototype a new design of a space station, a large inflatable donut that could be tucked within a rocket and launched into space, where it would then expand to a full diameter of 24 feet. Once pressurized, the rotating torus would serve as a way station for astronauts and transport vehicles as they journeyed to the moon and beyond.
But the proposed plan, alongside other 2001-style spinning habitats, nuclear-powered stations and massive orbiting spheres, never made it farther than the prototype stage. Serious consideration of an inflatable space station design was shelved.
With the development of the International Space Station in the 1990s, inflatable designs were back on the table. NASA proposed TransHab, an inflatable cylinder with a 27-foot diameter, intended to serve as a habitation module for crew based on the ISS. Unfortunately, cost overruns and controversy mired the project, and in 1999 the NASA Authorization Act banned the agency from further developing TransHab. But there was hope embedded in House Resolution 1654 — an explicit exception stated that, while NASA itself could not develop the inflatable station, it could lease such a model from commercial sources, provided the costs and safety risks were in line with previously established guidelines.
Enter Robert Bigelow.
After hearing of the failed project in 1999, Las Vegas native Bigelow, owner of the Budget Suites hotel chain and an avid space buff, reached out to NASA, eventually landing exclusive development rights to the technology. He brought on engineers from the NASA project to consult with his team, including TransHab lead developer William Schneider, and, bolstered by an eventual $250 million from Bigelow’s own coffers (with an additional $250 million pledged), development of an inflatable space module was once again underway.
Bigelow Aerospace has signed a $17.8 million contract with NASA, insignificant money when compared to the cost of the overall project, but a huge win for the private company. It has taken more than a decade of development time and the launching of two test modules (the Genesis I and II, both still in orbit) for Bigelow Aerospace to gain the space agency’s trust.
The milestone-based contract is for the roughly spherical 13-foot Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), which in 2015 will be launched onboard a SpaceX Dragon capsule, connected to Node 3 of the International Space Station, and expanded. There it will live for two years, undergoing environmental studies and experiments, serving as an uninhabited test bed for future module deployments and laying the groundwork for Bigelow Aerospace’s next major project: its own commercial space station.
Recently, Bigelow Aerospace and Hawthorne, Calif.-based SpaceX began a joint effort to secure customers for Bigelow’s proposed 2016 Alpha Station, a space station comprised of two BA 330 inflatable modules, the big brothers of the BEAM module, each capable of supporting a crew of six. Private and national crews to the station will be ferried at costs between $25-36 million per seat, with a minimum stay of 60 days in orbit and access to the station’s shared research facilities.
Beyond the Alpha Station, Bigelow Aerospace is in talks with NASA to make use of the BA 330 in ongoing ventures, and foresees a future where its inflatable habitats are used in lunar and even Martian exploration missions.
Some of us linger for a bit once the media advisory is complete, chatting with the engineers and NASA representatives, wandering around the spacious press room that serves as Bigelow’s museum to the future, the floor filled with scale and full-size mockups of inflatable modules, capsules, space stations and terrestrial bases. It’s amazing that this place is in Las Vegas. Most people have no idea that Bigelow Aerospace exists, let alone that its facility is only minutes from downtown. Why is that? I mean, hell, they’re building space stations in there.
As Mike Gold, Bigelow’s director of operations, admits, the company has been in heads-down mode for several years, and public awareness has not been a priority.
The Bigelow Aerospace website, framed within a model of a BA 330, is woefully outdated, and the company has played no visible role in the recent growth and portrayal of Las Vegas as an up-and-coming tech hub.
Unlike NASA and SpaceX, which have been incredibly successful with online outreach, Bigelow Aerospace does not maintain a Facebook page or any presence on Twitter.
Robert Bigelow himself is notoriously secretive, once claiming to have never sent an e-mail, instead preferring more direct (and secure) methods of communication. Until recently, he did not allow pictures of himself to be printed. Perhaps this sentiment is woven into the culture of his company, as well.
Still, Bigelow Aerospace is doing incredible things and deserves to be on your radar. In two years, when you see the news of the launch, when the module expands and inflates for the first time, revealing the red and blue Bigelow logo emblazoned across its side, remember one thing: That little piece of space station was born in Las Vegas.
CHRIS AINSWORTH is a native Las Vegan and tech dilettante. Find him on Twitter (@driph) or at driph.com.