By Donna P. Anderson NASA Johnson Space Center
estination: lowEarth orbit; the commodity: microgravity. Bigelow Aerospace plans to be the first to provide a commercial microgravity environment using expandable habitats.
Having launched Genesis I in 2006 and Genesis II in 2007, Bigelow Aerospace celebrated Genesis II’s 10,000th orbit this past spring. “We have learned that the durability of our system is extremely robust. Despite the years in orbit, the leakrate on our spacecraft is still undetectable,” says Mike Gold, a director at Bigelow Aerospace.
Genesis I was the first expandable space habitat technology on orbit, and the first spacecraft produced by Bigelow Aerospace. Genesis II represents the second deployment of an expandable habitat and contains a number of systems, additional cameras, sensors and new subsystems not flown aboard Genesis I, such as a reaction wheel.
Bigelow Aerospace also offered the general public the opportunity to participate in the “Fly Your Stuff” commercial program by allowing people to pay to send small objects into spaceaboard Genesis II.
Genesis II has 22 cameras on the interior and exterior of the craft, magnetic torque rods, GPS and sun sensors, plus the aforementioned reaction wheel system providing altitude control and stabilization. Genesis II does not have any propulsion mechanisms of its own.
Mission control for Bigelow Aerospace is in north Las Vegas, Nev., where its corporate headquarters is based. The company operates four ground communication stations that provide relays between its spacecraft and mission control.
Bigelow Aerospace was founded in 1999 by Robert Bigelow, and the company’s relationship with NASA Johnson Space Center (JSC) began in 2002 when the company entered into a series of Space Act Agreements that primarily consisted of shortterm technical personnel exchanges. Bigelow Aerospace now has an active Space Act Agreement with JSC, and several exclusive and partially exclusive licensing agreements for NASA technologies associated with inflatable habitats.
“Bigelow Aerospace is a pioneer for the emerging commercial space market. NASA is excited to be partnered with them,” says Michele Brekke, director of the JSC Innovation Partnerships Office.
Bigelow has identified a wide variety of potential markets for its services, according to Gold, and initially is focusing on two of them — microgravity research and development, and international astronaut corps. “We are particularly intrigued by the potential in the biotech and pharmaceutical markets. There is a vast amount of R&D dollars in this area and it’s a very promising market to tap,” says Gold.
“The ability to conduct scientific and commercial R&D in a microgravity environment will open up a new possibility for industry and government that can be conducted for a fraction of what NASA or large corporations spend,” Gold adds.
At issue however, is reliable transportation to and from the habitats. Gold says that the single greatest Achilles heel that Bigelow now faces is a lack of crew transportation. “Both the private sector and the government need a reliable, safe and affordable means of transporting crew to and from lowEarth orbit,” Gold says. NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program was a step in the right direction, in Gold’s opinion, but he says that much more needs to be done.
Several countries have a strong desire to develop their own native astronaut corps, according to Gold. He anticipates that Bigelow will beable to provide turnkey opportunities where, for pennies on the dollar, foreign nations will be able to have their own dedicated modules and essentially their own human spaceflight programs. “If the costs are kept reasonable this will unquestionably be an extremely exciting market,” Gold says.
A Bright Future
On the horizon for Bigelow is launching Sundancer, the node bus and the fullstandard habitat. Sundancer will be approximately the size of a large Greyhound bus initially, although Gold muses that he expects “the views from the windows to be much better.”
The habitat will grow with each launch through modules that will provide useable space that exceeds the space for the International Space Station, according to Gold. Again, the schedule for launch depends upon reliable transportation. Bigelow has relied upon the Russians and some very creative and unique arrangements to launch each of the previous Genesis habitat pathfinder prototypes. Gold would not predict at this time when Sundancer and other Bigelow systems will launch, since they are dependent on the development of a commercial crew transportation system.
In working with NASA, Gold says that private companies need to be forewarned, and prepared, to deal with the delays of working with a government bureaucracy. Gold continues, stating that there are some excellent attorneys at JSC in particular, and NASA folks who want to be innovative. However, Gold asserts that NASA Headquarters and NASA leadership need to figure out how to empower individual NASA midlevel managers, and partnerships with commercial projects, to work through the “bureaucratic process [that] currently takes an extraordinary amount of patience.”
“New frontiers offer many challenges,” says NASA JSC’s Brekke. “Developing a solid working structure between partners is a part of the process. We are working in exciting times, on the forefront of new discoveries and advancements.”
Ultimately, Bigelow Aerospace wants to see crewed space activities transformed in the same way that telecom has been from the domain of the government to a booming commercial market. “There is no other company globally that has made even a fraction of the investment or the progress that we have in developing and proving expandable space habitat technology, all on our own dime,” Gold says.
Donna P. Anderson is in the Innovation Partnerships Office at JSC. For more information, contact the JSC Innovation Partnerships Office at (281) 483 3809; or Bigelow Aerospace at www.bigelowaerospace.com/ (702) 688 6600. Please mention that you read about it in Technology Innovation.