CAN BILLIONAIRE ROBERT BIGELOW CREATE A LIFE FOR HUMANS IN SPACE?

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Turn down Skywalker Way, then make a left on Warp Drive. A hangarlike facility is there, huge, as a hangar should be. Inside, a tall mustachioed gentleman in a baggy gray pinstriped suit stands idly. He owns the facility and everything around it. He also owns the Budget Suites of America a few miles away, down near the Las Vegas Strip. That’s just part of his empire, that budget hotel, along with a whole chain of others scattered across the Southwest.


But we’re not here to talk budget hotels. We’re here to talk about the future, and a different kind of accommodations entirely: one that can be folded up, bundled onto a rocket, shot into space, expanded, and lived in. We’re here because Robert Bigelow—low-key billionaire, space entrepreneur, avowed believer in extraterrestrials—has invited us into this warehouse to show off his blow-up space home. There are doughnuts and coffee. Soon, lunch will be served. But right now Bigelow is ambling up to a podium, where he begins to scold us.

“You laughed at me,” he says to the crowd in his North Las Vegas headquarters. “When we said we would build an expandable system and place it on the International Space Station in two and a half years, you laughed,” he says. “It’s been two years and a quarter.” He pauses, letting it sink in—that he’s ahead of schedule—then lets loose a smile, wide as the West. “And here we are.”

Here we are: NASA officials, JAXA officials (that’s Japan’s space agency), media, and Bigelow Aerospace employees. Before Bigelow began his speech, I’d spoken with several of those workers. Dressed in thin white jumpsuits, they stood inside a roped-off area surrounding a pedestal, on top of which sat a refrigerator-size object, swaddled in a gray Kevlar-like material and shaped like an upside-down mixing bowl. This was the BEAM—the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module—the future of space habitats.

According to the jumpsuited workers, none of whom spoke louder than a reverent whisper, the BEAM would soon travel to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida where eventually—within months or perhaps a year—it would find a berth on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket bound for the International Space Station. At the ISS, a robotic arm would reach into the arriving SpaceX Dragon capsule, grab the BEAM, and attach it to the station’s Tranquility node. Astronauts would then send a command releasing compressed air into the BEAM. As the BEAM becomes pressurized, it expands until the module grows to 10.5 feet wide and 565 feet cubed. Not large but not small either. Imagine an eight-person tent or a studio apartment in Manhattan. All told, the expansion will take four and a half minutes. Then, the real work begins.

For two years, the astronauts aboard the ISS will try to determine if the BEAM, or some larger version of it, could be habitable over the long term. They will determine leak rate, measure radiation, and examine the thermal control inside the empty module. They’ll see how the module’s soft walls stand up to the bumps and bruises in space. And they’ll do their best to figure out just what an expandable structure orbiting Earth at about 5 miles per second feels like— an impossible thing to know until it is up there.

Intuitively, expandables make sense. They pack down, weigh less, and in just about every way mitigate the very high costs associated with breaking free of gravity. The BEAM cost just $25 million to develop (in part through a $17.8 million NASA contract) and could cost about $150 million to launch. Compare that with the (admittedly much more complex) ISS, which cost an estimated $100 billion, and was assembled over the course of a decade and a few dozen launches. But until the results of this test run come in, no one can say for sure if crewed expandables are indeed as good in practice as they seem to be on paper.

For argument’s sake, say the BEAM works. Say everything checks out just as Bigelow thinks it will. What then? He will possibly send a few more pods up to expand the ISS; he’s already working on a stand-alone craft. But he also has a more ambitious plan.

Once Bigelow has finished scolding the crowd and detailing the BEAM’s upcoming mission, he opens the floor to questions. Someone up front asks how Bigelow Aerospace might fit into a manned Mars mission. He’s not sure, he says. Then adds, cryptically, “We are more focused on the moon.” There is no follow-up. He just lets it lie. And so does everyone else—again dismissing what seems too fantastic to be real, though there are no chuckles this time.

As the crowd disperses, I sidle up to Bigelow. Despite the suit, he has the faintly rugged look of an old cowboy. He’s sitting slumped in a small plastic folding chair on the small stage, surrounded by a few handlers, and looking worn out. He offers his hand indifferently, but when I ask about his moon plans, he straightens in his chair and leans forward. He drops his low voice even lower, as if letting me in on a secret. The BEAM, he says, is much more than a simple proof of concept. “It’s a first step…toward a permanent settlement on the lunar surface.” He sees many similarities between the ISS test run and an eventual lunar mission. “Both would do something unique, in a unique place that has international interests, and would require a lot of partners—governmental and nongovernmental.” The BEAM launch, he says, “is not just a stunt—and neither are our moon plans.”

***

Back in the mid-1980s, Bigelow noticed a change happening in the desert Southwest. The area, deemed scarcely habitable, was growing quickly. Businesses were sprouting up, and visitors needed easy, affordable places to stay. To build his empire, Bigelow bought land cheap so he could pass along any savings to customers. He also made his hotels as convenient as possible—set right off the highway. He held onto nearly everything he bought, then sold a bunch of property when everyone else was buying like crazy, just before the market imploded in 2008. His fortune, already vast, grew vaster: His real estate investments alone are estimated at about $700 million today.

Bigelow now sees a similar change happening in another scarcely inhabited and inhospitable place: space. For a decade private business has been taking over access to low-Earth orbit (LEO), shuttling cargo and soon astronauts. See SpaceX and Orbital ATK as exhibits one and two. As those launches become more frequent—and as the ISS continues to rent out berths to space travelers and bench time to private businesses for zero-gravity experiments—the competition for floor space will only increase. Eventually businesses will set up their own labs and stations, and government-backed space agencies will push beyond LEO into cislunar space, the region between Earth and the moon. The next logical stop is the moon, then perhaps Mars. And then who knows? All Bigelow can be certain of is that such development requires people, and people need places to stay.

That’s where his expandables come in. NASA had pursued a similar idea in the 1990s in a program called TransHab, for Transit Habitat. The idea was to build an inflatable craft, cheaper than the ISS, to be used en route to Mars. NASA even designed one, complete with a multilayer shell of insulation and meteoroid-debris protection, but Congress cut funding in 2000, so the program was scrapped. Developing a new space station while still running and building the current one didn’t sit well, politically. Bigelow thought he saw something they didn’t, so he bought the rights to the TransHab technology for dimes on the dollar—the craft’s design, the patents for the layered inflatable walls, everything. He then set out creating what he calls “a turnkey solution to space habitation.” Cheap and convenient, same as ever.

For a hotel tycoon, new real estate often yields new opportunities. Low-Earth orbit, and all the private space habitats it could someday support, appears promising, at least in the midterm. Even so, there is no piece of real estate more compelling to Bigelow than the moon. Unlike space, the moon has resources. There are deposits of helium-3 for nuclear fusion, which the Chinese are already reportedly planning to mine. There is water in the form of ice, which can be melted and purified for drinking or broken down into hydrogen fuel. The moon is also located outside of Earth’s gravity well. For space agencies looking to make runs to Mars or elsewhere, it is an ideal departure and refueling point.

Perhaps most compelling is that Bigelow doesn’t see any real competition in building a moon base. NASA isn’t all that interested in a permanent moon colony, and it has little in the way of future moon exploration plans. Jason Crusan, who leads NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems Division (basically a venture-capital fund for space-focused businesses, including Bigelow Aerospace) says he can imagine a future where flights travel between Earth and the moon on a regular basis. But rather than NASA taking the lead, he expects others to. “We want to get to Mars,” he says. The moon is just a means to an end.

For Bigelow, the challenges of building a functioning base on the moon, while massive, appear far from insurmountable. A recent study, partly commissioned by NASA (put out on the 46th anniversary of the first moon landing), found that the costs associated with returning humans to the moon could be much cheaper than previously imagined—90 percent cheaper, in fact, or closer to $10 billion versus the previous estimate of about $100 billion. And setting up a moon base might run about $40 billion. Much of the savings comes from using the moon’s resources in situ. “You take what the moon gives you, and move away from things that have to be brought up from Earth: water, fuel, protection from radiation,” says George Zamka, a former astronaut and current director at Bigelow Aerospace.

A moon colony is a far cry from the BEAM. But the success of BEAM is critical if a colony is to happen. And that’s why Bigelow invited a bunch of NASA officials to his warehouse. He would need NASA’s permission if he ever planned to send further expandables to the ISS and to access its astronauts. NASA, meanwhile, needs proof that expandables are viable habitats, and that Bigelow is the guy to make them.

This is all part of the process, as Bigelow sees it. He’s smart enough to know that space habitats need to move slowly for everyone to accept them. But he doesn’t have to sit on his hands for two years to learn of BEAM’s results. Far from it.

***

As Bigelow talks, I stare at the massive structure hanging beyond the stage. The prototype space station, Olympus—formerly called the BA2100—is 41 feet wide and about 60 feet long. It nearly fills a wing of the hangar: three stories, a dozen rooms, with docking bays on each end, to string multiple crafts together. On its own, the Olympus offers more than two times the interior space of the ISS, about 2,250 cubic meters when expanded.

Were it already in space, the Olympus could be docked with a propulsion unit, providing a crewed station in LEO, in lunar orbit, or a point in between. It could also provide a habitat for a trip to Mars. All of which are part of its ultimate purpose. For now, that purpose will remain unfulfilled. It is so massive that, even deflated, no rocket exists that could haul such a large payload into orbit. Bigelow keeps the Olympus front and center for inspiration, a symbol of all that’s left to be done.

What’s not on display today is Bigelow’s follow-up to BEAM, the B330, a fully livable habitat that is well underway. According to Zamka, the craft is designed to fit a crew of six comfortably, has walls about 18 inches thick, layers of insulation, and protection from micrometeorites. It boasts solar and thermal radiator arrays, semiprivate berths, a zero-G toilet, four windows, two sets of control thrusters, and will be able to link up with other spacecraft for docking, towing, or tugging. Bigelow engineers are working on avionics systems for orbit, docking, maneuvering, and boosting beyond LEO into cislunar space. This past May, the company announced it was looking to fill upwards of 100 new positions to build those systems out for a (very optimistic) launch date in 2018.

B330 is much more complex than BEAM. It’s not a demonstration pod but a full-fledged expandable spacecraft, capable of sustaining human life on its own. Many of its life-support and comfort systems will be forerunners for a lunar base.

Zamka told me many of B330’s most daunting problems have been solved, not solely by Bigelow but with help from NASA. What might still hold up the launch, he said, would be finding a crew, and a rocket capable of carrying it. At about 43,000 pounds, B330 weighs roughly twice what the Russians or SpaceX can lift. That problem might be temporary, though. Two heavy-lift rockets are coming online shortly: SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, due to launch later this year, and NASA’s SLS (for Space Launch System), which will debut within the decade.

That’s not to say those rockets ensure B330’s success, or even its liftoff. As with all things in space, nothing is certain. And there is plenty of dissent. Bigelow’s critics say he’s putting the cart (the craft) before the horse (the rockets), that he’s overstepping with his lunar property plans, and that he’s letting his belief in the future and value of the moon base get the better of him.

But Bigelow, more than practically anyone, is remarkably comfortable forging ahead in the face of disbelief. He’s seen the impossible happen more than once, after all. As a boy he heard an atomic bomb rumble across the desert beyond Las Vegas. He saw the flash of light. As a man, he built his long-stay empire out on the same barren desert, deemed nearly worthless at the time.

Perhaps because of that, because he’s confirmed that the world is surprising and sometimes not what it seems, he’s willing to chase ideas that no one else does. In the 1990s, he started the National Institute of Discovery Science for investigations into the paranormal. He bought a ranch in Utah known for UFO sightings and “skinwalkers”—werewolflike creatures that were said to have attacked cattle. The ranch house featured a hallway with a closet that locked from inside. His beliefs can seem silly. But explaining them he is frank and open, as if he’s too wise and successful to feel embarrassed about much of anything anymore.

At the end of our conversation, Bigelow’s handlers close in, telling him he has more hands to shake. As he steps from the stage, a man in a tie-dye T-shirt and flip-flops, holding a video camera, corners him. “So you believe in aliens,” the man says, then launches into a monologue about the mysticism of the desert and extraterrestrial visitations. Bigelow patiently waits him out. “You simply can’t know unless you’re out there,” Bigelow says, then he tells a story he’s repeated many times. His grandparents were driving through a desert north of Las Vegas when they saw something otherworldly: a glowing ball of fire in the sky, hurtling toward them, its light taking up their whole windshield.

They told their grandson this story, and ever since he’s believed. Intelligent life is out there, he says. He is certain of it. Sure, believing in aliens feeds the doubters, leads to more criticism, makes him the butt of jokes. But Bigelow doesn’t worry about that. For him, belief in the impossible—whether aliens or hotels in space—is part of life out here in the desert, or one day out there, on the lunar surface. It always has been. To succeed, you have to prove everyone wrong. You have to get there first.

This article was originally published in the March/April 2016 issue of Popular Science, under the title “The Baron Of Low-Earth Orbit.”

The (Blow-Up) Road To A Moon Base

Sometime within the next year or so, an expandable pod built by Bigelow Aerospace will travel to the International Space Station--one small step toward the company's goal of building a base on the moon. Here's how it aims to to get there:

 

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