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Bigelow shoots for the moon

Bigelow Aerospace
An artist's conception shows a Bigelow Aerospace complex in Earth orbit. Such a
station could serve as the precursor for prefabricated lunar bases after 2020.

Even as Bigelow Aerospace gears up for launching its second prototype space station into orbit, the company has set its sights on something much, much bigger: a project to assemble full-blown space villages at a work site between Earth and the moon, then drop them to the lunar surface, ready for immediate move-in.

In an exclusive interview this week, Las Vegas billionaire Robert Bigelow confirmed that his company has been talking about the concept with NASA – and that the first earthly tests of the techniques involved would take place later this year. The scenario he sketched out would essentially make Bigelow a general contractor for the final frontier.

That role would be a good fit for Bigelow, who made his fortune in the real estate, hotel and construction business and is now focused on developing inflatable modules (or as he prefers to call them, "expandable systems") that can serve as the building blocks for orbital living complexes.

The first big step down that path came in July, when a Russian booster put Bigelow's Genesis 1 prototype module into orbit. Bigelow has said even he was surprised by the success of that mission, and he has committed himself to spending hundreds of millions of dollars to follow up on that first launch.

The next test module, Genesis 2, is due for launch in April – with a larger prototype, known as Galaxy, tentatively scheduled for liftoff next year. Bigelow's plan calls for launching the company's first space "hotel" capable of accommodating guests (or researchers, for that matter) in 2010.

Getting all that right is "Job One," Bigelow told me. But by 2012, the focus could start shifting from low Earth orbit, or LEO, farther out into space. One of the key places in Bigelow's plan is a point about 200,000 miles (323,000 kilometers) out from Earth in the moon's direction, where the pulls of terrestrial and lunar gravity balance each other.

This diagram shows gravitational
balance points L1 through L5.
Earth and the moon are not
drawn to the orbit's scale.

Bigelow would turn that region of space, called L1, into a construction zone. Inflatable modules would be linked up with propulsion/power systems and support structures, and then the completed base would be lowered down to the moon's surface, all in one piece.

Once the moon base has been set down, dirt would be piled on top, using a technique that Bigelow plans to start testing later this year at his Las Vegas headquarters. The moon dirt, more technically known as regolith, would serve to shield the base's occupants from the harsh radiation hitting the lunar surface.

Bigelow is not alone in thinking about ways to do all this. In fact, Bigelow Aerospace arranged the interview in response to last month's story about NASA's plans for building infrastructure on the moon after 2020. At the time, NASA's Larry Toups had mentioned that the space agency was discussing its options with Bigelow as well as other aerospace companies, such as ILC Dover (which has its own inflatable-module project), Lockheed Martin and the Boeing Co.

Bigelow's latest comments bring the concept of inflatable modules full circle. NASA pioneered the technology for space habitats that could be folded up into a small space for launch, then inflated with pressurized gas after their deployment. Bigelow licensed the technology, known as the Transhab system, for his own private-sector space program – and is now working with the space agency to adapt the system for its original purpose.

That was the starting point for our interview, which appears here in full (with minor editing):

Bigelow: These expandable systems were part of NASA's architecture for going to Mars, and then they became the architecture that NASA was going to use for the dormitory for the international space station. And of course, Congress cut the program. So these systems have applications for deep space missions as well as for missions on the moon and the surface of Mars.

We've had some discussions with NASA regarding lunar activities using these structures, and we've presented NASA with two concepts for our approach as a private company to creating a lunar base and also providing the regolith insulation protection

Cosmic Log: So those are two separate opportunities – one would be creating the base and the other would be providing that regolith protection. Am I reading that right?

Bigelow: You are. Our concepts are completely different from all the other concepts that have been kicked around about how to deploy the regolith. We have our own approach about how to create the base and the provision for gathering that lunar material and placing it over the modules. And that's been the focus of our discussions with NASA, on just that particular subject of lunar interest.

Our company does have a lunar interest. It's obviously secondary to our activities in low Earth orbit, which we certainly want to successfully accomplish first.

Q: I'll definitely return to that in a second, but I did want to ask you about your approach to the base and the regolith insulation. Someone coming in from the outside might say, "Well, you just take one of those inflatable modules and you plunk that down on the lunar surface and pile moon dirt around it. It doesn't sound that complicated." Is the devil in the details, or is there some radically different way in which Bigelow would approach that challenge?

A: Yes, there's a significant difference, because both of those are very significant challenges.

The regolith is made up of very, very fine, talcum-powder-type of glass particles. As you probably know, these particles are a significant abrasive, and they are able to penetrate the smallest of joints in any moving system. So what you don't want to have, if possible, is a reliance on any moving systems to deploy that material.

AP file
Robert Bigelow meets
the press in Las Vegas.

Now, all the architectures for deploying the regolith involve some kind of conveyor belt, or a tractor or some other kind of large equipment that rolls around the surface, scoops up the material and transports it like you see on construction sites terrestrially. Usually, that type of solution is imagined because people look to construction excavation as the methodology to deal with the lunar regolith problem. Being a general contractor as we have for over 30 years, we've been on an awful lot of construction sites, and we've excavated an awful lot of material.

If people have ever been around a construction site at night, they'll see a bunch of lights on those machines, and some service trucks there. Those service trucks aren't there just because there's nothing better to do than visit the machinery. It's because that machinery breaks down constantly on Earth, all of the time. Every construction site has that feature to it.  People who have never been to construction sites are completely unaware that this is a habitual problem on Earth, let alone the moon.

The last thing you want to do is handcuff yourself to an Earth solution for moving material – a strategy that would be just crazy to apply to a lunar application. We have enough problems as it is keeping the machinery running – Caterpillars, loaders, excavators, all kinds of machinery.

So our solution is something entirely different, involving a method where no machinery actually is used. We're going to be trying the method this year, using one of our steel simulators as a prototype, because it's the size of vessel that mimics the full-scale module. We're actually going to try in Las Vegas to apply our solution for covering up a full-scale module, involving only two people, with a depth of soil on the crown of at least 2 or 3 feet. We'll give you more on this later as we progress with this experiment.

Q: You don't want to go into detail on the particular strategy involved?

A: Well, part of it is because we would prefer to actually implement our approach first. The other part is that I don't have a lot of time left right now to explain it. It would take me probably 15 minutes to describe the process to you. … Maybe another time.

Q: Well, I guess we'll just have to stay tuned for more on that. So in terms of the lunar habitat, would it be another version of the habitat that you're using for orbital operations?

A: Yes, our concept of lunar base construction would be to assemble various modules and propulsion/power buses in L1, and that would constitute the base. Those propulsion systems are full of fuel, and they are integrated into the overall structure in such a way that the entire structure lands as a unified base – which essentially was once a spaceship in L1, but is landed on the surface of the moon.

This way, you avoid the significant issues that surround having to gang modules together on the lunar surface on topographical surfaces that are not perfectly even. You avoid having to connect the air locks of modules that maybe weren't able to be brought close enough together. You avoid having to transport modules across the lunar surface, even if they were only a matter of a few hundred yards apart, and assembling them so that you have an airlock-to-airlock connection.

One module really isn't the issue. It's a matter of how you get three or five or seven down as one overall complex. Our architecture addresses that as a potential solution, using a combination of our propulsion buses and these expandable systems. The propulsion buses would have stanchions on them that act as the rigid points, to be able to deal with uneven topographical surfaces. The expandable systems themselves don't mind at all being set upon a solid surface because of the shields that they have and the durability of the overall system. The rigidity of the system is such that they don't mind at all. Even under a 1-g influence on Earth, there's no problem – so under one-sixth it would be much less.

They come equipped with their own insulation, by the way, for space debris in low Earth orbit, and to a certain extent for micrometeoroids. So they're already better insulated than the international space station is currently. Of course, the regolith is a significant additive that would be a great enhancement of the protection.

So anyway, the base is assembled in L1 and proceeds to the lunar surface. Because it's not having to fly direct, it has wider opportunities: Bases can be sent to multiple alternate landing sites. It can be occupied or unoccupied at the time it is deployed to the lunar surface. So you save a lot of time, a lot of money, and lots of lives potentially during assembly, because it's going to be a very risky situation to assemble modules and try to gang them together on the surface.

Q: The idea is that the L1 balance point would provide a relative stable place where you don't have to worry about things wandering away all that much, and it's a stable place to work with multiple systems to put it together.

A: Well, yeah, and furthermore, as a precursor to that, we will have already assembled those spacecraft in theory in low Earth orbit. If they can be congregated and ganged together in low Earth orbit, then we're fairly optimistic that can also be done in L1.

Q: On that topic of orbital operations, can you give me an update on your plans for the next orbital launch, for Genesis 2?

A: We're making preparations for sending various folks to Russia. We have a sizable crew of people who go back and forth – I think it's on the order of 21 or 22 people we send over there. And I will be adding myself to that number over there as well. We're looking forward to the launch in April, and things are good to go.

We have a replacement Biobox that we're putting in the spacecraft. Since we have the extra time, we want to give the little living animals that we're flying the best chance for longevity in space. So we had a duplicate Biobox, and we are in the process of replacing the old one with the new one, with the same constituents of ants and beetles and scorpions. In fact, we are outfitting a scorpion with the same identification marks that the fifth-grade class that named that particular scorpion is going to recognize. We've added some color to that scorpion so that the fifth-graders will recognize it.

So everything is going to be replaced in the new Biobox as it was in the old one, with the intent that we've provided some extra lifetime in orbit.

Q: And the time frame of sometime around or after April 1 still applies?

A: Yes, we expect to have updates over the next couple of weeks, before the 15th of March. We will be making more announcements as to the accuracy of that time. We are getting ready to ship the spacecraft out. We still anticipate an April launch, so we're good to go.

Q: In terms of the time frame for this larger lunar infrastructure project, you mentioned that there would be a test of the regolith transfer system later this year. Are there any other milestones you're looking forward to? Do you expect to make some sort of full-featured presentation to NASA at a particular time, or do you just take each step as it comes, leading to the post-2020 time frame?

A: Our Job One is to take care of our business in low Earth orbit and try to perfect our spacecraft through these Pathfinder launches. Then try to launch our Sundancer spacecraft in 2010, our Galaxy spacecraft in '08 – and perfect our propulsion buses and our power systems, and start assembly of our first commercial space complex in 2010, 2011, 2012. By 2012, we should have two habitable modules in orbit, and one large propulsion and power system.

That will constitute the beginning of our opportunity. If we can do that, I would say that's an exercise that's applicable to the L1 scenario.