Joe Skipper / AP
Saturday, Feb. 5, 2011 | 2:05 a.m.
Robert Bigelow has been waiting for an important phone call from NASA. On Friday, he got a visit, instead.
While NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver’s stop at the Bigelow Aerospace facility in North Las Vegas was a welcome boost to the company and its 115 employees, what Bigelow is really looking forward to is word from NASA that he can proceed with plans to develop his inflatable space station, which he hopes to have in orbit by 2015.
Garver’s tour raised awareness about NASA’s strategy to work with entrepreneurs and academics in the next phase of the nation’s space program.
She had no news about Bigelow’s project, but she said NASA would have an announcement within the next few months about space station plans.
“The government can’t do everything when it comes to space exploration,” Garver said. “That’s why we turn to the private sector, which can add innovation. What you see here is an example of our nation at its best.”
Garver said NASA has endorsed the concept of inflatable habitats, and Bigelow has built, tested and launched prototypes.
The cylinder-shaped habitation modules designed by Bigelow include the 29-foot Sundancer, which has a 20.6-foot diameter. The larger BA 330 modules are 45 feet long and have a 22-foot diameter.
Bigelow envisions docking modules together with a supplemental power bus, but each module can function independently with its own solar power arrays.
The company also has collaborated with Boeing for a seven-seat crew capsule to deliver people to the orbiting modules.
In addition, Bigelow has versions of the inflatable modules that can be anchored on surfaces such as the moon or other planets.
With the launch of two test vehicles, Genesis I in July 2006 and Genesis II in June 2007, Bigelow demonstrated the use of modules that were packed into a launch vehicle and inflated in orbit. Both units remain in orbit today and are monitored by Bigelow from tracking stations in North Las Vegas, Hawaii, Alaska and Maine.
With Genesis having proven the viability of the Bigelow concept, the company is prepared to move from the research-and-development phase to production.
A new production facility is under construction on the North Las Vegas campus and mock-ups of the vehicles are on display at the plant.
Bigelow self-funds his aerospace business, having invested some $215 million to date from profits generated from his ownership of the Budget Suites of America discount hotel chain. He has said that he intends to invest $500 million in aerospace.
“We’ve been in the R&D mode for all these years,” Bigelow said. “Until late last year, we had no product to sell. There was no drum to beat here, no need to publicize our existence.”
But that could change in the years ahead.
Bigelow said once production begins in earnest, the company would have between 1,200 and 1,500 employees. He hopes companies that would supply Bigelow with systems and materials would also locate in Southern Nevada and start a small cluster of aerospace companies.
While Bigelow appears to be the clear front-runner in developing orbiting habitats, the United States’ lead in launching vehicles into orbit has evaporated. Garver noted that through 1997, virtually every space launch occurred on American soil. Today, Russian and French interests have taken the lead.
The two Genesis modules, in fact, were launched from Russia.
Regardless of what happens with NASA, Bigelow intends to market his dream to foreign countries by allowing them to lease space on his space stations to conduct research in microgravity. He said countries that may not have been able to afford a space program can take enormous technological leaps and boost their images by giving their scientists the opportunity to work in a weightless environment.