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Inside the spaceship factory

— On a 50-acre spread in North Las Vegas, near the intersection of Warp Drive and Skywalker Way, the prototypes for future space stations are being built from strips of fortified fabric, supertough inflatable skin and lattices of metal.

Today a gaggle of journalists and space entrepreneurs got a rare look inside Bigelow Aerospace's industrial-park production facility and mission control center, just a week and a day after the company's launch of its Genesis 1 orbital test module. We were treated to three and a half hours of talk and tours, led by billionaire Robert Bigelow and his top engineers.

Alan Boyle / MSNBC.com
Security officer Wayne Leslie welcomes visitors to Bigelow Aerospace.

With the success of Genesis 1, Bigelow has become much more willing to show off the facilities he's built as part of his $75 million space investment. There are limits, of course: I had to delete one of my pictures under the watchful eye of a security guard because I pointed the camera in the wrong direction. But we ended up with plenty of pictures, and plenty of good quotes from "Mr. B" during a question-and-answer session in the company's hangarlike Building A. Here's a sampling:

Bigelow has been surprised by just how successful the Genesis 1 mission has been - a mission that was the first orbital test of an inflatable spacecraft that represents the first step toward private-sector space stations. The 4-foot-wide, 14-foot-long module was launched atop a converted Soviet-era intercontinental ballistic missile from a Russian military base, then inflated to twice its diameter, just as planned.

"I think I was the most 'doubting Thomas' in the company," Bigelow told our group of about two dozen visitors.

"I'll second that," chimed in Genesis program manager Eric Haakonstad.

Laura Rauch / AP
The Genesis team meets the press. From left: Boris Rubanovich, Mark Pierson,
Jay Ingham, Robert Bigelow, Eric Haakonstad, Allison Manion, Roger Gonzales.

The day of launch was a nail-biter for the Genesis team. There was an hours-long gap between liftoff and confirmation that the spacecraft was in its proper orbit. "That's when I got nervous," Allison Manion, who led the mission control team, recalled. She was up for 23 1/2 hours on that first day.

But as the days wore on, the news just got better and better:  Haakonstad said the high-speed communication link has been working like a charm. "I believe this will be the longest TCP/IP wireless link in existence," he observed.

About 500 images have come down from orbit in the first week, said Bigelow Aerospace's Roger Gonzales. Only a few of them have been released, however.

Laura Rauch / AP
Science editor Alan Boyle is silhouetted against display screens in the darkened
mission control center for the Genesis 1 spacecraft.

Now that the team has had a chance to make a detailed assessment of the spacecraft's health, engineers figure that the module could last even longer than the three to seven years they estimated before the launch. Haakonstad said Genesis 1 could hang around for as long as 13 years in orbit, providing insights into just how durable the inflatable skin can be.

The schedule calls for launching a second Genesis by the end of the year. Genesis 2 should have a better flight control system, and Bigelow said it's designed to carry about 18 cameras, as opposed to the 13 on Genesis 1. The second spacecraft will start flying other people's stuff (and sending video of that stuff floating in zero-G) for as much as $295 a shot - marking the project's first significant revenue stream.

"What we're trying to do with this first spacecraft is draw attention to the second spacecraft," Haakonstad said.

After Genesis 2, Bigelow Aerospace will step up to its Galaxy-class prototypes, which will have twice as much pressurized volume as the Genesis craft.

The aim is to work up from the one-third-scale Genesis to a full-scale, 330-cubic-meter Nautilus module that will have as much space as a three-bedroom house (and as much space as the international space station in its current configuration). Such modules can be linked together, using the same standards as those for the international space station. In fact, a Nautilus module could be hooked up to the space station if desired, said Mark Pierson, manager for vehicle integration and test.

Alan Boyle / MSNBC.com
Mission controllers Tom Londrigan and Matt Boyd monitor Genesis
1. The spacecraft passed right over Las Vegas during the tour.

Bigelow said "we feel we are ahead of schedule" on his plans to have a commercial space complex in orbit by 2015. The current projection is that a Bigelow-built orbital station could be ready in the 2010-2012 time frame, assuming that other companies can develop safe, economical and reliable rockets to put payloads and people into orbit by that time.

And beyond that, Bigelow said "we definitely have a lunar architecture in mind." Inflatable modules could be assembled en route to the moon, plunked down on the lunar surface, then covered over with moondirt to provide protection against radiation. Although such an application is probably years down the road, Bigelow and his engineers are already laying the groundwork here on Earth.

"We're going to be testing that, we hope, this year over one of our steel simulators," Bigelow said.

Alan Boyle / MSNBC.com
A full-size air bladder for a Nautilus module stands inside Building A.

We didn't get to see those simulators today, but we were treated to a tour of other Bigelow facilities by Haakonstad, Pierson and Jay Ingham, design team leader. We started out in the darkened mission control room, in a walled-off section of Building A, where two or three controllers monitored spacecraft telemetry. On the walls, giant TV screens displaying Genesis 1's ground track and not-yet-published pictures of the spacecraft interior (including a snapshot of cockroaches inside a life-support experiment).

James Oberg / MSNBC.com
Erik Haakonstad and Alan Boyle size up
a Genesis-scale test module.

Then we headed out and around a corner to the other half of Building A, past a fully inflated test bladder for the future Nautilus module.

When I tried to take an overall shot of a machine shop, a security officer quickly called a halt - and insisted on watching as I hit the "delete" button for the offending image.

But it all ended with good humor and a handshake, and we had our picture taken with our arms around each other's shoulders.

Other highlights included:

  • A close-up look at Genesis test modules sitting in the machine shop. One module was double-wound with straps that held a partially inflated bladder in place. When I banged my hand against the side, it thumped hard as if I were playing a drum.
  • A visit to the 26-foot-deep outdoor pool where test inflatables are immersed for stress testing. The pool was only partially filled today, but the blue water looked positively inviting in the 90-degree-plus heat.
  • A stop at Building B, where Bigelow maintains a museum of module mockups, artist's conceptions dating back to 2001 - and a full-scale mockup of three linked Nautilus modules. We climbed inside the complex, outfitted for three levels of living space. Each level had a lattice of straps as a floor - which would serve better than a solid floor for handholds and footholds in zero-G, Haakonstad said.

But where was the real Genesis 2? Well, Haakonstad said that spacecraft was still taking shape, and the integration facility where engineers are working on the actual items for flight is in another section of Building B - a section that was off-limits to us. Even now, some secrets have to remain secrets.

"We're trying to protect the very valuable stuff that we're working on," Bigelow told us.

Stay tuned for more about Bigelow Aerospace, once I put the rest of my notes in order. And for a look at yet another nexus of space commercialization, check out this archived report on SpaceX's rocket factory.

Update for July 21, 6:50 p.m. ET: Due to a publishing glitch, our presentation of the first videos from Genesis 1 was out of commission for the past couple of days. I just wanted to pass along the word that the video is back in service. Sorry about the initial failure to launch.

Also, you'll find additional perspectives on the Bigelow Tour from Clark Lindsey at RLV and Space Transport News, Jeff Foust at Personal Spaceflight and Leonard David at Space.com.