LAS VEGAS, Nev. — For this desert gambling town it could become an odds-on favorite: Inflatable space modules.
With company facilities spread out across some 50 acres here in North Las Vegas, Bigelow Aerospace is bankrolling big-time the private development of large space habitats.
Extensive work is underway in designing and building partial and full-scale inflatable modules, fabricated to serve a range of users, from bio-tech firms and educational institutions to other groups wanting to churn out made-in-microgravity products.
While not the firm’s top-of-the line business pursuit, inflatable space modules could become an Earth orbiting stopover for spaceliner tourists. That’s not too much of a stretch given who is backing the endeavor -- businessman Robert Bigelow, owner of the Budget Suites of America Hotel Chain.
“It’s all about doing more for less money so it’s affordable,” Bigelow told SPACE.com during a tour of the sprawling complex of buildings containing numbers of test modules, manufacturing gear, as well as the site for a half-million gallon pool to burst-test pressurized designs.
For several years, Bigelow and his team of now 60 employees have been quietly shaping a do-it-yourself space business plan.
“Several years ago, I thought about how much money I personally would be prepared to spend over what period of time. I expected that I may have to put up and invest as much as $500 million by the year 2015. I stand by that. I still think that’s very possible,” Bigelow said.
Bigelow admitted that he is “pretty judicious” in dishing out cash. And for good reason.
“I’ve been a contractor for 35 years. This is nothing new to me,” he explained. Delivering inflatable space modules on budget and on time is akin to what happens here on Earth in general contracting to build terrestrial structures. “That is what it’s all about. You are dealing with large sums of money, time frames, a lot of cats and dogs as people go in a lot of different directions, and a lot of regulation…a lot of regulation. So there hasn’t been a culture shock for me.”
New lease on life
Bigelow Aerospace is drawing from years of NASA work on the TransHab. That inflatable structure was once targeted for use in the International Space Station program, but never flew.
“TransHab was a vertical layer cake. We turned ours horizontal,” Bigelow stated, for a longer line of sight within a given module.
Through various agreements with NASA’s Johnson Space Center, Bigelow and his team made use of TransHab lessons learned. They are also receiving healthy doses of technical assistance from the space agency in giving inflatable structures a new lease on life.
Old guard contractors
Use of inflatable technology has been a chicken and egg, Catch-22 type of proposition in space circles, Bigelow said.
For one, project managers have balked at utilizing them because of a lack of time-on-duty in space.
Then there’s the traditional aerospace corporate world that seemingly is loathe to spend their own money if there isn’t a direct pipeline to reimburse them from a NASA program, Bigelow noted.
The old-guard aerospace contractor community is “pretty much decades old in their thinking,” Bigelow said. “They are not going to do things for a lot less. The motivation really isn’t there.”
Bigelow said that by taking a skunk works approach – under wraps, fast paced, and tight cost controls -- makes a big difference. “When you pull money out of your own pocket, then you are highly motivated to find inexpensive ways of doing successful things.”
Why has Bigelow stepped out into the spotlight?
“We’ve bought rockets…we’ve got maybe 25 or 30 suppliers now, and more that we’re cultivating,” Bigelow said. “So now it’s time to talk.”
Bigelow Aerospace has scripted a multi-step test effort, leading up to the lofting of the Nautilus expandable module. Weighing upwards of 25 tons, the Nautilus is to offer 330 cubic meters of volume. “That’s a lot of volume…a lot of room,” Bigelow added.
But to get to the Nautilus-class mega-module, a one-third scale inflatable test article called Genesis is to be sent spaceward late next year, as well as in 2006. These dual tests would be followed in 2007 by the orbiting of two nearly half-scale modules.
Tracking stations in Alaska, Washington, D.C., and in Las Vegas are under appraisal to monitor the incremental inflation of test modules to hard-as-rock status. “We want to go past noon…survive past dinner time,” Bigelow said. “We’ve spent a lot of money and a lot of time to get something up there to watch and to retrieve information. And so has NASA.”
Sets of cameras inside and outside the self-expanding structure are to observe inflation technology at work. Dosimeters would gauge radiation levels within the module. Other instrumentation would monitor air leak rates and how much power is being provided by attached solar panels.
Fabric of choice
“What we really have is a thermos bottle that we’re flying,” Bigelow said, in terms of air bladder insulation and temperature control.
The fabric of choice for the Bigelow Aerospace inflatable module concept is a synthetic material called Vectran. It was used as the airbag fabric for the last three NASA Mars lander missions – the Spirit and Opportunity robots, as well as Mars Pathfinder that deployed the Sojourner rover.
Vectran has almost twice the strength of other synthetic materials, such as Kevlar, and performs better at cold temperatures.
In Bigelow’s larger live-in module design, a space dweller’s first task would be to deploy water bags having a Velcro backing. These internal water bags serve as radiation shielding. A multi-layered, debris-thwarting outer covering protects the inflatable module.
Webbing material can divvy up volume within a module to create compartments, flooring -- all to a user’s specifications.
So what’s wrong with this scenario: Private space modules, launched on private rockets, and visited by privately-built space ships?
That may not be too far-fetched. Along with Bigelow, there is a growing guild of millionaires and billionaires now tossing in their own bucks to back an array of space ventures.
“We’re all aware that we’re somewhat co-dependent on each other,” Bigelow made clear. “We kind of know each other. We kind of keep track of who is doing what,” he said.
Ideally, Bigelow stated, is having a federal entity, like the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) say: “Welcome home boys. We can make fast decisions. We have some discretionary money for space activities. We have some ideas and maybe you guys can save us money.”
DARPA would save money, as well as time, counting on a confab of private space entrepreneurs, Bigelow said. “I think their patriotism would surface. They would have a potential customer that has money that we can count on. And that’s going to be a customer that we can serve.”
Look into deep space
Visiting astronauts to Bigelow Aerospace have offered travel tips about life onboard the International Space Station. There are several consistent grumbles from station occupants, Bigelow advised.
“There’s no privacy…to be away from each other. No place to sleep. No compartment of your own. They are too cramped with all kinds of things stowed onboard,” Bigelow said. Turning on and off equipment at the source rather than floating to other modules to do so is another must-have.
While Bigelow wants to sprinkle Earth orbit with inflatable modules, the entrepreneur is looking into deep space too. Setting down expandable structures on the Moon and Mars has been given thought. Turning inflatables into durable bunkers on the lunar landscape is quite feasible, he said.
Far from Earth, for warehousing purposes, big volume inflatable technology is ideal, Bigelow said, “and to carry as many candy bars with you as you can.”
© 2013 Space.com. All rights reserved. More from Space.com.