The orbiting of the privately-bankrolled Genesis 1 expandable spacecraft by Bigelow Aerospace is a step forward in the company’s vision to provide a low-cost, low Earth orbit human-rated space complex that is accessible to the commercial sector.
The general concept for "inflatable" space habitats was initially developed by NASA for use in a proposed mission to Mars, hence the name, "Transit Habitat" or "TransHab" as it was commonly referred to. That work was curtailed in 2000, falling victim to NASA budget cuts.
Since that time, Bigelow Aerospace took the basic concept, redefined it, moved the technology generations ahead and in many different directions, and ultimately brought the idea to fruition in the form of the Genesis 1 Pathfinder vessel.
Launched earlier this month, the Bigelow Aerospace Genesis 1 has taken the deflated NASA idea and puffed new life into the use of what Bigelow Aerospace refers to as ‘expandable’ space-based structures — spending some $75 million in the process, so far.
Still, obtaining U.S. permission to shoot Genesis 1 into orbit atop the Dnepr booster — a converted Cold War, silo-launched SS-18 intercontinental ballistic missile from Russia — was no trouble-free task.
Second only to gravity
The U.S. Department of State is responsible for the control of the permanent and temporary export and temporary import of defense articles and services. Under what’s called the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, the job is clear-cut: Control of arms sales to foreign parties is an integral part of the the United States' ability to safeguard national security and further foreign policy objectives.
"One of the most difficult aspects of conducting a mission like Genesis 1 is surviving all of the red tape involved in export control. Without working with Defense Technology Security Administration and Defense Trade Control officials, I don’t know if we would have made it," said Mike Gold, corporate counsel for Bigelow Aerospace in Washington, D.C.
Gold confirmed that there was a "long document trail" before Bigelow Aerospace workers at the launch site in Russia opened the sea container that contained Genesis 1 in preparation for its July 12 blastoff.
"Second only to gravity, the force that had the greatest potential to keep Genesis 1 on the ground was the ITAR," Gold explained to SPACE.com. "I think there is a consensus in the industry that some reforms in this arena are warranted and potentially overdue."
Red tape and reform
"It was extremely difficult for us. The amount of red tape and regulations are enormous," said Robert Bigelow, founder and president of Bigelow Aerospace at a press briefing last week at the company’s central location in Las Vegas, Nevada.
In Bigelow’s view, the ITAR seems designed to discourage any kind of interaction between U.S. companies on a space effort with other countries. His advice is to return such decision-making to the Department of Commerce.
For his part, Gold also had some near-term solutions, while saluting how DTSA, in particular, handled the Genesis 1 launch. Echoing his employer’s sentiments in regard to the Department of Commerce, he also had some additional near-term suggestions.
"We’re big supporters of export control. Ballistic and militarily sensitive technologies should unquestionably be protected," Gold said. "However, when it comes to projects that don’t involve any such information or hardware, and like Genesis, are composed virtually completely of commercially available technology, a different regime is required."
Gold said that within existing law, licensing officers should be encouraged to look hard at applications, and, if they do not involve militarily sensitive hardware, act accordingly.
"I’ve worked with DTSA in particular for two years now, and there are some very smart people there…it would be beneficial if the system encouraged them to make more commonsense judgments in regard to monitoring and other requirements, particularly when dealing with off-the-shelf technologies," Gold explained.
In Gold’s view, there needs to be more discretion built into the system, a bifurcated process, so that commercially available technology is not treated in the same way as militarily sensitive hardware.
"The key is to take the time to distinguish one from the other. That way, DTSA and DTC can focus more of their scarce resources on technologies that legitimately need watching."
Very thin line
There is ongoing debate regarding ITAR and whether this regulatory muscle impedes U.S. trade, an ability to compete in the global marketplace and hinders science exchange — a claim voiced by many U.S. industries and academia.
From their perspective, the Department of State contends ITAR is a must-have security benefit with the various rules and regulations imposed having limited impact.
"There is a legitimate national security concern on proliferation of missile technology and launch technology, and all the know-how that goes around that," explained Robert Brumley, former chairman of Reagan’s commercial space working group. He is also former general counsel for the U.S. Department of Commerce.
"You only have to look as far as North Korea, Iran and China to really see sort of the cause and effect. It has always been a concern… and it’s a very thin line," Brumley told SPACE.com. "There is a line you cannot cross by essentially selling the rope to our enemies and they will come over here and hang us with it."
There’s a good reason for both sides of the line, Brumley said. "There is a process in place, a bureaucratic process, but it’s a process," he advised, and Bigelow proved it can be done.
"That’s just the way it’s going to have to be until we’re in a safer world," Brumley said. "The consequences of not having a process are too extreme to imagine."
Bigelow’s boost on a Russian ICBM for launch was done as a cost-saving and needed measure.
An early rocket of choice by Bigelow Aerospace for tossing its test modules into space was the Falcon 5, offered by Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), based in El Segundo, Calif. But the firm's Falcon 1 booster has been trouble-plagued, failing last March in its maiden flight.
Elon Musk, SpaceX chairman and chief executive officer said his firm’s booster is slated to orbit one of Bigelow’s larger, still under design prototype modules in late 2008 on a Falcon 9.
The Genesis 1 design that went on the ISC Kosmotras Dnepr was too large for a Falcon 1, but too small for a Falcon 5 or Falcon 9, Musk explained to SPACE.com.
Bigelow’s blastoff courtesy of the Dnepr also underscored the impediments for launching within the United States, Brumley observed.
"We still have third-party liability insurance issues. We still have access to launch facility problems. We still have certified vehicle issues," he noted.
U.S. launch firms do not crank out production model boosters like the Russians do, Brumley added. Rather, American providers build a "build-to-suit" launch vehicle, he said.
"The way to avoid the ITAR problem is to remove impediments in the United States to the kind of launch services and payload integration that is now being done offshore," Brumley observed. "That’s the better solution."