Real-estate billionaire Robert Bigelow, the head of the world's newest orbital space program, says he thinks of his Genesis 1 inflatable module as "our baby" - and lies awake at night wondering how "she" is doing. On the day after the big launch, Bigelow chatted with me about the regulatory hoops he and his team had to jump through, the bugs and jumping beans that are aboard Genesis, and the road ahead to human orbital flight.
Bigelow via AP
Artwork shows Bigelow Aerospace's Genesis 1 craft
fully inflated, with solar panels deployed.
Just to refresh your memory, Genesis 1 is a one-third-scale prototype for what Bigelow Aerospace hopes eventually will be the building blocks for private-sector space stations: prefab modules that can be compressed down for launch, then inflated in orbit like balloons with bulletproof skins. The 14-foot-long, 4-foot-diameter spacecraft was launched Wednesday from a Russian military base atop a converted Soviet-era ICBM - and all indications so far are that the craft performed precisely as planned. (Today's mission update says the first images have been sent down from the onboard cameras.)
"This is like the day after a war," Bigelow told me over the phone today from his Las Vegas headquarters. "We have a lot of walking wounded around here, and we have some missing in action - we don't even know where they are. ... We were not prepared for this kind of success, to tell the truth."
Even though the first launch was successful, he still worries. After all, he's spent $75 million on the project so far, and he intends to spend $500 million before he's done. But to hear him talk, it's not just about the money.
"I went to bed last night thinking, 'Our baby is up there, 550 kilometers up and probably on the other side of the planet right now,'" he said. "And I'm lying there thinking, 'Gee, I hope she's OK, and I hope we can take care of her.'"
Right now, Bigelow has just one antenna feeding data to the mission control center for Genesis 1 in North Las Vegas, and he said there's not much time to pull down all the imagery and data Genesis is sending. "We're building two more S-band antennas, one in Hawaii and one in Fairbanks," he said. Bigelow said those should be ready in four or five months - perhaps in time for the Genesis 2 launch, currently scheduled for the November-December time frame.
Part of the Genesis mission is to find out how long the spacecraft's components can last in the space environment. "We're trying things that are very new, that haven't been flown before," he said. But another part is to learn about orbital life support. That's why Bigelow made an extra effort to place some small-scale life experiments on Genesis 1.
"We did fly some bugs and some Mexican jumping beans on this flight," he said. Genesis 1's payload also includes an experiment from NASA's Ames Research Center, which was included "as a gesture of good will," Bigelow said.
Bigelow plans to put ant farms and scorpions on the next flight. "All that sounds kind of irrelevant, but it's actually quite serious," he insisted, "because we're endeavoring to keep things alive, no matter how small, and we have to start somewhere."
Over the long haul, Bigelow hopes to put increasingly complex critters into space and "have them procreate, have them go into a multigenerational situation."
In addition to the technological and scientific experiments, there will be financial experiments. "The third mission that we're on is to try to create various business cases, revenue streams that have to do with the general public and these robotic spacecraft, and involve each other through the Internet. Ways of creating entertainment, or games. Advertising."
The "Fly Your Stuff" promotion is the first example. For this flight, Bigelow Aerospace employees contributed photos and mementos that should be floating around in zero-G, and thus should show up on internal spacecraft images being sent to Earth. The company is currently accepting other people's stuff to be flown on future spacecraft, at less than $300 a pop.
But don't send anything you'd ever want to have back.
"This is a one-way trip," Bigelow said. "You can walk out there at night and see the spacecraft and tell somebody next to you, 'I've got such-and-such on that spacecraft right now.'"
If this first Genesis flight has fired up the imagination for more of those kinds of ideas, that's exactly what Bigelow is aiming for.
"I would love to get people on board the whole space subject in a grass-roots way that has never been done before," he said. The enthusiastic reaction to this week's initial success is "a step in the right direction," Bigelow added.
To get this far, Bigelow and his team had to deal not only with the technical difficulties of orbital spaceflight, but with the regulatory difficulties as well. "There was absolutely nothing easy," he recalled.
The problem wasn't with the Russians: "I cannot say enough good things about the companies that we're working with in Russia," he said. Rather, it's the U.S. government's export restrictions that caused him fits - which should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the international space industry.
"We're about the only country in the world that has decided not to commune with the rest of humanity in terms of information about space hardware and space technologies. And I think that's a detriment," he said.
So how did he find his way through the regulatory thicket? "It was having folks who refused to give up," he said. He had special praise for Bigelow Aerospace's Washington office and the lead attorney there, Mike Gold. The ability to launch in Russia was "thanks to him and his staff and his unrelenting drive to overcome the ITAR regulations."
Looking ahead, Bigelow plans two launches per year, moving up from the third-scale Genesis to a roughly half-scale prototype, and finally launching the full-scale, 330-cubic-meter Nautilus spacecraft by 2012. The time line targets 2015 for an honest-to-goodness space station, capable of hosting tourists or researchers, performers or athletes.
Bigelow hopes that the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket will be ready to go in time for the Nautilus launches. If SpaceX founder Elon Musk is successful, "we are probably a multiple-flight customer for him," Bigelow said. But for now, the converted Russian ICBM - known for commercial use as the Dnepr rocket - is good enough.
"That rocket will satisfy two generations of spacecraft for us, the Galaxy and the Genesis," Bigelow said. "We will fly numerous times using that vehicle for both generations. If we get to a situation where Elon is not ready, and there's no other domestic rocket on the horizon that is affordable - which is of course the problem today - then yes, we'll probably be looking for a foreign rocket."
That would likely be a Russian launch vehicle like the Soyuz or the Proton, he said.
Rick Tumlinson, one of the founders of the Space Frontier Foundation and a veteran rabble-rouser in space circles, said that Bigelow's project could eventually lead to the fulfillment of a decades-old dream. In a congratulatory news release, Tumlinson declared that the Genesis 1 launch was "what the opening of a frontier is all about," and would lead to bigger steps ahead.
"At the point when we have private transportation going to a private destination in space, history just changed," Tumlinson told me today.
But Bigelow isn't thinking about the history books just yet. He's still worrying, even after this week's apparent success.
"We're a small, humble organization, and we make up for our small size with our enthusiasm and the expertise of our crew," he said. "I don't think we want to be overconfident. There is plenty of room for failure. We think this success doesn't preclude that we're going to have failures in the future."
Bigelow wasn't just being metaphorical about seeing that Genesis spacecraft in the sky. Satellite experts have already worked out a schedule of viewing opportunities - some of which should be bright enough for the naked eye. Go to the Heavens-Above Web site, plug in your coordinates, then go to the satellite database and search for "Genesis-1." You can also go directly to this page to see Genesis' current location, but you won't be able to find out when and where you can see it from the ground.
This Real Time Satellite Tracking page can also show you the orbital location of Genesis 1 and lots of other spacecraft, including the space shuttle Discovery, which was launched last week ... by that other space program.