Two privately built prototype modules are circling Earth, as a technological prelude to seeding space with far larger orbital housing that will support human occupants.
Lofting all that living space into Earth orbit is on the business agenda for Bigelow Aerospace of North Las Vegas — but the company faces significant challenges in attaining their sky-high goals.
The privately backed Bigelow Aerospace Genesis 1 and Genesis expandable subscale space modules were shot into orbit — on July 12, 2006, and June 28, 2007, respectively — on Dnepr boosters from the ISC Kosmotras Yasny Cosmodrome, located in the Orenburg region of Russia.
Both modules remain in excellent shape, providing valuable data on the use of expandable space structures for crews, not only in low Earth orbit, but on the moon and Mars, said Michael Gold, corporate counsel for Bigelow Aerospace in Chevy Chase, Md.
"We're ahead of schedule," Gold told Space.com, thanks to the success of Genesis craft that are proving out the fundamentals of the Bigelow Aerospace module design.
In an Aug. 13 message, Robert Bigelow, president of the entrepreneurial space firm, underscored the fact that global launch costs were escalating.
"These price hikes have been most acute in Russia due to a number of factors including inflation, previously artificially low launch costs and the falling value of the U.S. dollar. What this now means for Bigelow Aerospace is that to conduct another subscale demonstrator mission would cost two to three times what it has in the past," Bigelow explained.
That being the case, Bigelow announced an expedited schedule — one that would skip an in-orbit flight of a module dubbed Galaxy, and fast-forward directly to the much larger Sundancer, an expandable habitat capable of being boarded by humans.
"We still intend to construct and test the Galaxy spacecraft and/or various parts of it in order to gain familiarity and experience with critical subsystems. However, by eliminating the launch of Galaxy, we believe that Bigelow Aerospace can move more expeditiously to our next step by focusing exclusively on the challenging and exciting task presented by the Sundancer program," Bigelow reported.
Although Sundancer is already taking shape — with 2010 eyed as the target time period for launch — the schedule change also brings about some bad news, Gold said. "Our schedule is so aggressive and our progress has been so good, it is creating some significant concerns in terms of transportation," he added.
Gold urged launch companies to recognize the fact that the international space station is not the only destination target out there. "It is very disconcerting where the launch industry is today," he noted.
There are rockets, both domestic and foreign, that can loft the large and heavier Sundancer module, but affordable, reliable and safe transportation of crews to the private outpost is missing right now, Gold said.
Why not utilize the Russian Soyuz spacecraft to send crews to Sundancer? From a simple financial perspective, Gold responded, "we don't know if it can support the business case" of Bigelow Aerospace. "It's probably not a financially viable choice for us."
Expanding the technology
Sundancer is meant to form the foundation of a future Bigelow Aerospace space complex, one that ties separate modules together to form an even larger on-orbit facility. Moreover, the company has its sights set on beyond-Earth applications of expandable structures.
"I think it's widely acknowledged that expandable habitats are where we are heading, whether it's the moon, Mars or beyond," Gold emphasized. "Low Earth orbit is the first stage of that ... to test the systems prior to deploying anything on the moon or Mars. What we learn in Earth orbit will be absolutely vital to expanding the technology to future worlds."
Meanwhile, the two Genesis-class modules continue to rack up space mileage as they circle Earth. The intent is that the dual spacecraft will provide priceless data for years to come.
The "Fly Your Stuff" initiative — in which participants paid to fly items inside the Genesis spacecraft — is completed, Gold said. Engaging the public in future Bigelow Aerospace ventures will continue, he said, in one form or another.
Another idea being prototyped on Genesis 2 is the use of a projector on the tip of the craft's solar arrays. That equipment casts an uploadable image on the side of the orbiting module. The resolution and clarity of those images has proven the concept workable — and also bolsters the prospect of being a revenue-generating idea, Gold said.
Politics and financing
Operating two spacecraft through a telemetry network — with mission control sited in Las Vegas — has proven invaluable, Gold said, particularly in terms of sharpening the skills of ground control teams for future missions.
Expanding the company's communications network to handle humans on orbit is the next step, Gold continued, with plans for adding more ground stations on an annual basis.
Gold said that the great irony of space is that the technology has never been the limiting factor. "It's a matter of politics. It's a matter of financing. And those two challenges are much, much worse than any engineering issue that will arise."
"The success of Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 was not only technological ... it was proving that we could do it at the cost that we did," Gold stated. "I would be willing to gamble that the two missions will go down in history as the most cost-effective space operations in history. That's the paradigm shift ... that's what really needs to occur."