This past week Bigelow Aerospace announced it had created a new company called Bigelow Space Operations that manages and operates space stations developed by Bigelow Aerospace and that they had partnered with CASIS which manages the U.S. National Laboratory on the International Space Station. With Bigelow stepping up operations, we thought it useful to present this interview by Eva-Jane Lark with founder Robert Bigelow which appeared in Space Quarterly Magazine in March 2013.
Bigelow Aerospace – LEO and Beyond!
Eva: 2013 has started off on an exciting note with the announcement of your contract with NASA to attach a Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) to the ISS. As I understand it, there will be a testing period where the module is only opened infrequently to check on its status and the degree of radiation exposure it has been exposed to?
Robert: I think once it gets on station, the astronauts themselves will probably take charge of what they intend to do – as far as using it as a resource. Space is at a premium on board the station. It is very hard to find enough places to store things. A lot of things are in the astronauts’ way. It is very hard to find a place to sleep with any kind of privacy. A lot of areas in the station are very noisy. So my guess is that if we have a successful spacecraft deployment and execution of the docking at the station, then I think eventually that the astronauts themselves are going to take charge of the different uses they are going to use that vessel for. It could be for a number of different things.
Eva: Will you eventually have the ability to rent it out separately for research or other activities or is it for the exclusive use of NASA, the ISS?
Robert: No. NASA owns that structure.
Eva: Can you describe the research and engineering you have done and how the BEAM (or the upcoming larger Alpha station) differs from the old Transhab designs and technology?
Robert: The Transhab structure was different in a number of ways from our BA330.
Our BA330 is named that because it is 330 cubic meters. The largest module on the ISS is 110 cubic meters. That gives you some idea of the size of the 330. The Transhab configuration was a vertical attitude. The architecture was in a vertical mode and so far as the line of sight, there were two or three decks. You had maybe a seven and a half or eight foot head clearance between decks and there were at least three different deck compartments in the vertical attitude. So your line of sight was just the diameter of the Transhab itself. What I did, was I turned it on its side so the line of sight was then along the axis of the spacecraft and that provides a much more open feeling.
We also eliminated the decks. So you could maneuver very easily from one end of the module to the other and your line of sight is more on the order of thirty-three to thirty-five feet from bulkhead to bulkhead.
When we need to have a platform for a deck, we use netting velcroed to the hull, which creates a strong enough structure. It is attached to the scuff coat of the outside air barrier that is the most durable membrane of the spacecraft which you bump into and then it would be anchored someplace else on the center core. So we have the center core that the Transhab had but there is another big difference. Their center core was the only area that they protected with water. They had a water bladder, a two and a half inch thick water bladder that surrounded the central core of the Transhab. And if you had an SPE, a Solar Particle Event, occur then everybody could get in there and hide, try to fit into that central core to have additional protection.
I did use the water idea of course, but turned it into two and a half inch thick square or rectangular bags. Those are velcroed all of the time to the scuff coat of the interior of the spacecraft so that 100% of the time, not only are the shields that are part of the structure of the spacecraft itself offering a terrific protection, but you also have the water as well so that everything inside is well protected rather than just an area around the core. Those are major changes between ourselves and the Transhab. Also the shape is slightly different.
The weaving structure is substantially different between the soft goods applications of the Transhab for the restraint layer, and the way that our restraint layer is made. That is substantially different. In terms of the materials, they are similar. The Transhab restraint layer was made of Kevlar. Ours is made of Vectran. We picked Vectran because there is no creep in that material but there is some creep in Kevlar. Those are basically the differences. We also have more windows than Transhab was going to likely have. The one I saw that was full scale did not have any windows in it that I could recall, at least on the side that I could see.
Eva: How many windows do you have?
Robert: In our spacecraft, the 330, there are four windows.
Eva: The two BA330 modules that make up the Alpha station will be the first truly commercial space station, and you have recently announced pricing. How far along is their fabrication? Are you starting to see indications of interest or customer contracts yet?
Robert: Both of those vessels will be finished in 2016. In 2016, we will be ready to launch two 330s. We have been working on the research and development for years for that spacecraft and we have bought all of the propulsion systems for both spacecraft. We are on schedule. We intend to meet that deadline.
As far as the market is concerned, we are just now starting to beat the bushes, so to speak, for the market. We have been somewhat handcuffed to the pace of transportation, which has been handcuffed to the pace of funding from NASA. Had NASA been awarded more money, I think that program would be farther along. But it is what it is. We have had to back off a little bit on our marketing plans so we would not be at that intersection too soon, when transportation wasn’t yet ready. It wouldn’t help us to have these spacecraft ready to fly in 2014 if there was no transportation available until say January of 2017. SpaceX may have certification for passengers by even late 2015 but certainly by 2016. Boeing appears that they may not be ready until sometime in 2017. We are trying to match our pace, of our steps in tandem with the pace of NASA funding, and with the pace of the progress of the companies that are providing the transportation.
Eva: That pace has been unpredictable and challenging in the past. From what I understand, using Russian transportation is not an experience you wish to repeat?
Robert: Absolutely. We definitely don’t. However I don’t even think that it would have been a practical alternative in any way. Our 330s need very large transport. The Genesis 1 and 2 spacecraft were so small by comparison. They were a mere 3000 pounds (1360 kg). The BA330 will be 43,500 pounds (19,731 kg).
Eva: At what backlog level would you consider launching a second, third (or more) modules or stations?
Robert: We want to take reservations this year. We would like to have a list of interested parties who offer up a deposit. I think once that reservation list reaches a certain point; we would start to get very focused on Bravo Station. Actually there are at least two options. One would be to launch a second stand-alone station such as Bravo Station or to add a third and fourth module to Alpha Station. But that’s going to depend, to some degree, on what our customers’ wishes are.
Eva: They might want to be a little more remote?
Robert: They may want to be a little more discrete perhaps. I’m not saying that is going to be the case. Our objective is to really serve our customers, and focus on our customers’ wants and needs and do everything we possibly can to make the customer happy – like you would expect any other company to do for any other kind of product.
Eva: Can you walk us through the experience a customer of the Alpha Station will have? For instance, from the time the SpaceX or Boeing ship docks with Alpha…
Robert: To some degree it will depend on what kind of customer you are. If you have not, or your company or country has not leased a large volume on the station then presumably there will not be a lot of experiments for you to tend. Otherwise you might have fifty, sixty, seventy or eighty different experiments that you’re going to be constantly working on and making sure that if there is a hiccup or a glitch, then you are fixing those things along the way. You’re also making reports and communicating results and other things in the communication traffic down, things that are observed by the scientist, by the practitioner astronaut that is in charge of taking care of those experiments. That scenario would be for anyone connected to, for instance, any number of universities that are flying a lot of experiments, or perhaps a country, or corporation like a pharmaceutical company.
Let’s suppose that that wasn’t the case. Let’s suppose that maybe the Canadian Space Agency said we are going to pay the $26 million to send an astronaut to the station for a couple of months. Even that time frame is flexible. If we can get four people to agree to a time frame, we can fly people for any time frame they want. If they want ten days or two weeks, thirty or sixty days or even longer, we can do that. We are very flexible on that. But we do need four people to agree on that time frame.
And that flexibility is very practical and important when you have people whose time is very valuable down on Earth with things they need to get back to. Maybe they are entertainers, Hollywood types, or they are corporate executives and cannot be gone for a two month period of time. Perhaps they might want to make a movie in space, do those kinds of things. There is quite a list of different kinds of things people may want to and can do.
If they are flying up there without a lot of experiments to work on, then they may want to use some of the experimental hardware that the station comes equipped with such as the centrifuge, microscopes, maybe the furnace and other things that we will have generically available for people who are visitors who are not bringing up a lot of things of their own. Maybe somebody decides to bring up something that they are going to make into finished products to then bring back to Earth to sell – all this material has been in space and they are producing some kind of souvenirs by the hundreds and hundreds to then sell for x number of dollars apiece, and on these will be the autographs or signatures of everyone who was on board at the time. There are all kinds of little business opportunities that may be generated that way. I’m drilling down now into a small kind of market.
We do think that the bigger market is going to be where experimentation will happen first, then where manufacturing is going to happen. In the medical area that holds a lot of promise already. The surface of that has only just started to be scratched. There are a lot of encouraging things to be excited about.
From a national standpoint, a lot of countries don’t even have the opportunity to fly an astronaut. Those folks come back as national heroes if they do get to fly. And now they have to pay an arm and a leg in order to get to fly. It is either a barter system where, for instance in the case of Canada it has provided the Canadarm and Dextre – which are very expensive pieces of hardware, and in return there is a barter of a certain number of seats. But sometimes those seats are several years apart. We’re saying for 26 million dollars a flight, you can go every year. And by the way, if you want to rent a third of the module for another $25 million, you can probably fly fifty to seventy different experiments from a variety of different folks who will pay you to do that.
Eva: During NASA Administrator Bolden’s recent visit to Israel, he was asked if Israel could fly a second astronaut. That seems a very timely example of demand in that market…
Robert: We have done research and our head researcher has identified about sixty-one countries that have space agencies or some kind of space departments. Only a relatively small percentage of those countries fly with any regularity. In fact, most of them never do. The way the station works is that if there are six seats allowed, the Russians are automatically given three. The Americans are given two. So how in the world, is the rest of the planet supposed to be adequately served with one seat? And that is every six months. It just doesn’t make sense. So to us, we see a market here, if we can be affordable. Even though $26 million is a lot of money, in a national perspective, or large corporate perspective, it really isn’t. We think that price point is good for maybe nine or ten years, and we think the movement that it will eventually have is down. Our objective is to have the largest possible market that we can generate and that obviously is a function of how affordable it can be.
Eva: In the last edition of Space Quarterly, I interviewed Jeffrey Manber of Nanoracks about their commercial activities and experiments on the ISS. We discussed the potential to scale up experiments that have shown successful results. Is there a synergy between their current activities and customers and your projected ones?
Robert: Well, I think there is. We are probably a subsequent stage. The International Space Station is great as a birthing location that fosters scientific research and micro-gravity experiments but on a smaller scale and a restricted menu. For example, the medical community is very upset that no animals are allowed on board. It is very important for them to get the animals up and back to Earth.
Eva: Will you have any restrictions of that nature?
Robert: We will have some restrictions. The size and quantity of animals will have to be controlled. Obviously there will need to be law and order on board for everyone’s safety and for hygienic reasons, etc. We are very open-minded to having some animals present to work with. That is a tremendous boost to the medical community.
Eva: One of Jeff’s observations was that many of the interesting or favorable results of research done through Nanoracks on the ISS have not been made public yet for proprietary and confidentiality reasons.
Robert: You know what else has been happening, is that because in the past researchers had to deal exclusively through NASA. NASA used to have Space Commercialization Centers and each one of those centers in the United States got a million dollars a year and there were twenty of those centers. The message I got from corporate people is that it was a catastrophe, a disaster because the situation was so undependable that they never knew when or if they were going to fly. Sometimes the missions took so many years between the time that they were ready to fly and by the time that they could that, the team had disbanded.
So they also found terrestrial alternative methods to accomplish the same things. Maybe not as well. At least it was a band-aid instead of not doing it at all. Then to top it all off, they said, that when they did get to fly, they weren’t allowed to have their scientists there and had to rely on an astronaut who was not really schooled in the particular science of what they were flying. If there was a problem, the experiment was in serious trouble.
Eva: What will be on orbit for customers? Are you going to provide services for them or is everything up to the customer?
Robert: It’s up to the customer. Here’s our plan. We provide an environment for the customer to be able to spend one hundred percent of their time, doing what they want to do. We will have full-time crew on board that is focused on maintaining the safety of everyone and maintaining the cleanliness and hygienic standards of the spacecraft, and of course the maintenance as well – making sure everything is running. I think as far as things go like food preparation, that’s kind of fun for everyone to join in and do as a group activity. Maybe there will be some kind of movies… our station is so large you could set up a small theater. You’re not just in a tin can. We actually have the ability to set up a small theater inside and show any kind of movies that are brought up or transmitted to the station. I’m sure 2001: A Space Odyssey will be shown – a revival.
Eva: Your technology was designed for a zero gravity environment… can it be equipped with a propulsion system once in orbit?
Robert: We do have propulsion. We have two dissimilar propulsion systems that can be used to move the spacecraft substantially. There is a hydrazine system on one end. There is a finite amount of propellant in that system, so eventually it could be depleted. Then there is a hydrogen/oxygen system on the other end and that burns water so as long as we have water, we have propellant.
Eva: There is a lot of discussion going on at the moment about in-situ resource utilization for the development of propellant and other resources on the Moon and asteroids. What is the potential, or are your plans, for use in a low gravity environment such as the Moon, asteroids or Mars?
Robert: Now you are really talking… this is the area that we are most excited about. We are hoping that we may have something to announce before too long, in the near future. We have something we have been working on for quite a long time. Of course, the BEAM was a three year, overnight success. We did work on that for quite a while. There is something else we have been working on. We hope to have an announcement that could be very interesting in the near future. And it does have a lot to do with L1, L2 and eventually a lunar base. And it’s not just a Bigelow Aerospace venture. It would be in conjunction with other folks. We obviously plan to be there as far as habitats are concerned. We think we can make the best ones and the most affordable. We will continue to always have that as our goal. We don’t have to sell our structures. If NASA were to be a client – leasing to them is just fine with us. From a legal standpoint, the best transference of law in space is probably from maritime law and real estate. That essentially covers everything that we do. In fact we don’t mind at all if our customers want to sublet, or resell their seats. If they sell it for twenty percent more, that’s okay. More power to them. We don’t care. What we consider ourselves to be are wholesalers. We are wholesaling to our customers and whatever kinds of gains customers can achieve – if they can resell or re-lease something – then we are all for that and plan to cooperate in any way we can.
Eva: So for instance, you may not want to operate the station as a hotel per se for a period of time but someone else might book it for that purpose and carry out that business…
Robert: Absolutely. We’re providing the building for which there may be a lot of different users, of different tenants. It is not our business, other than for the safety and health of the people on board, but it really isn’t our business proprietarily or otherwise as to what occurs on board. It must be a legal activity and not something that can harm people. A good metaphor is, if you have a twenty story office building, you are going to have a lot of different customers in that structure. We are the developers of that structure. We have to make sure that you can get to it, that it is reliable, that all the utilities are functioning properly, that everything is working. And that we are as competitive as we can possibly be, and as encouraging as we can be to a diverse amount of uses in that structure. If someone has invented or discovered something there, and they can make a billion dollars with it – hooray for them. It doesn’t belong to us. It is their proprietary right.
Eva: Any plans for the modules to be used as a ship? Either to travel to an asteroid or potentially to get to Mars?
Robert: We do have a scenario, and animations – and this gets into what I was telling you that we are so excited about. They definitely can be moved. LEO is just a staging ground. LEO is barely the edge, the most remote edge of our opportunity to get out there. We have animations showing propulsion buses attached to these spacecraft we make and depending upon your destination, that dictates the amount of prop the bus has to have. We look at both SpaceX Heavy and the SLS as being relevant potential lifters and the Orion as being another relevant potential passenger and cargo vessel. For all the scenarios – whether they are going to L1, L2, the Moon or Mars – you want the largest, safest structure you can have. You need it for supplies; you need it for protection – so that is what we are working on. We’re even working on a second generation that’s very exciting. It’s down the road a little ways but we are building a full scale mock-up of this spacecraft. It is 2,250 cubic meters in size. One vessel. One module. 2250 cubic meters. The International Space Station’s total volume is 1,100. If it were a dormitory, it could easily handle thirty-six people. We have configurations for it as a medical facility, a supply and warehouse facility. It has five decks on it. It can be a maintenance shop for cargo vessels that come and go to it through an airlock. It is so large, the airlock can accept a CST100 or a Dragon into it. Then that spacecraft can be worked on in a shirtsleeve environment.
Eva: That sounds very impressive. We’ll definitely look forward to hearing more news about that as it develops.
Robert: It’s going to be fun. It’s going to be exciting. It is going to be really fabulous. Like I said, we hope to have, later this year, that full-scale mock-up done on our shop floor. It is so big. We had no room for it except for in a new third addition to the plant, the A3, which we just finished. We have such a high bay there and it is barely going to fit underneath the cranes. We have just enough ceiling height to be able to accommodate that indoors. We would eventually like to have people be able to come here and see it. We are always enthusiastic and excited to show people what we are developing, like any proud parent of their children. They want to show them off and we feel that way about the kinds of things that we build. It will be towards the end of this year before that spacecraft is finished.
Eva: Your two Genesis modules currently in space – what lessons have you learned from them and are there more to be learned? Any surprises?
Robert: When we launched those spacecraft, we weren’t sure of anything. We weren’t sure if they were going to work. I was skeptical and wasn’t sure if we weren’t going to have some serious problems. I nearly passed out when I realized that everything was going fine and that we were receiving all the telemetry and all the physical apparatus was functioning fine. You could have knocked me over with a feather. I was just gobstopped. I couldn’t believe it. And then we repeated that same thing with the second flight. It was just fabulously successful. What we had hoped for was about six months of uncorrupted data from all of our sensors. We were flying a lot of sensors on those spacecraft, and cameras. We flew about a dozen cameras on Genesis 1 and about twenty-two cameras on Genesis 2. Cameras were inside and out. Instead of getting about six months, we got two and a half years. After that period of time, we began to lose telemetry. We had deliberately looked at those spacecraft as if we would never have people occupy them of course, that they were strictly test-bed spacecraft. So we didn’t go to the kind of expense and trouble that we could have if they were going to be occupied or if we had intended for those missions to last five or ten years. So we began to have degradation of our avionics systems. The first was the batteries that we started to have problems with, and some circuits. Even though there was a lot of redundancy, it eventually caught up with us since there was no one on board to fix anything. For two and a half years we were error-free. Over the following year and a half to two years, we lost our communications. We know where those spacecraft are. We just can’t receive any communications from them because they just don’t have the juice.
Eva: Did you learn which components you need to manufacture or space-harden differently?
Robert: We already did know. We had made that choice to put in the expense just at the level for the timeframe we were looking for. Had we decided to go to a much greater expense, we could have bought much more time. We deliberately didn’t do that. We deliberately put in the hardware that we knew would give us the readings over the period of time that we wanted and we felt that if we were able to have clean data for a half-year, we would be able to know everything we needed to know about that spacecraft’s behavior. Instead we got two and a half years of uncorrupted data.
Eva: You have invested a tremendous amount of your own personal assets and time in Bigelow Aerospace. Do you have an ultimate goal or an ideal result you’d love to see from the efforts you are putting into this?
Robert: It isn’t so much about how much money you make, but how much money is required to do other things. This is a means to other ends. We are conscious that our business case makes sense; that our business case works.
We are doing everything we can do foster and grow a nascent industry. We would like to create a larger birth of everything that we possibly could. The revenues coming off of that enterprise are going to be reapplied to further expansion and exploration. It is not LEO that we are really focused on but it is the Moon. Beyond that it would be Mars. But in the next ten years, it is the Moon. The Moon is a great learning ground. As far as where our concerns lie, we want to have somewhere close to home, where if anything were to go wrong and we were to have a bad day, we could mitigate that and save it from becoming a truly awful day depending on how many people are involved. We really want to have that as a practice area. It is terribly important to do things that are dangerous in a way that you can recover from them (if you can). So the Moon to us, gives us that opportunity to try these structures out on a hard surface that is very inhospitable.
Going to Mars at the moment is a tough thing. Our approach is to take it on a step-by-step process. Two hundred and forty thousand miles is as far as man has ever gone and that is nothing. We are looking at scenarios of putting stations out at about six million miles (which is still nothing) but it is farther than a quarter of a million miles. Just working with the amount of propellant that is necessary to move craft about – there is a great lack of understanding of how difficult that is. We are currently using antique fire engines, fire engines that have been around since the Apollo era and nothing really has changed. Even if you superheat the fuel, by radiating it with a nuclear propulsion system, you might get about nine hundred to a thousand seconds ISP out on those motors and you might cut your time in half. Time means a lot. You don’t want people out in remote locations. No one has been operated on in space yet. That will be a big deal someday. How do you control that? What do you do? No one has given birth to a baby. What will that mean if that birth happens on the Moon or on Mars? If that child lives there for a long time, they may not be able to come back to Earth. The pressure of one gee on their lungs may be so strong that they couldn’t breathe. It may be more than a function of strength and not being able to walk around. If you have lived in a one-sixth gee environment all your life and you are 25 years old, it may be highly questionable whether you can come back in any kind of a normal way to Earth. So a Mars colony is a very difficult logistic affair. Whereas the Moon, even with the fire engines, the antiquated systems we have, can be far more practical to grow colonies, expand them and travel back and forth. Mars is a significant leap. And I don’t just mean in terms of the obvious distance – but technologically and sustainability, it is a huge jump to keep people alive and robust without Mother Earth being right nearby.
There are a lot of other things that I would love to talk about that we are doing right now because they are terribly exciting, terribly exciting, but I can’t. I can mention though that one of the things we do hope to offer to our early customers is a free EVA. That is a big deal!
Eva: Indeed it is! Do you have any plans to visit your station yourself?
Robert: I would like to. There is a lot of work to be done first. As long as I stay in good shape, the possibility will be there.
Eva: Thank you so much for the fascinating discussion! We look forward to more announcements and discussions about your progress on those other exciting projects.