Toward the end of the last panel, I was handed an invitation to a VIP tour of Bigelow Aerospace! I’m not sure how I got added to the list, but whoever did it, thanks! This was, for me, the highlight of the conference.
After meeting upstairs and getting on a bus, we drove out to Bigelow’s facilities up in northern Las Vegas. Of the 35 or so people in the group, there were about half a dozen of us who were in our 20s, including Jeff Feige, his fiancee, two guys from SEDS, myself, and Berin Szocka from the Institute of Space Law and Policy (ISLAP). We had a rather interesting discussion about running space related organizations and chapters, but that’ll have to be a story for another day.
After a several minutes drive out into the outskirts of town, we reached the facilities. As the articles I had previously read on the internet stated, the whole thing was surrounded by a security fence topped with several rolls of concertina wire, and yes he had a very competent security detachment. That said, the security guys were fairly nice, and I have to admit, if MSS was working on a half billion dollar space project, I bet we’d have tighter security too.
After checking in, getting our visitors tags, and being taken to the actual buildings, we went inside one of them, and were promptly greeted by Mr Bigelow himself. I have to admit that I thought it was rather classy that he was taking his time to give the tour personally. They’ve been doing a few tours over the past year or so, mostly for local elementary schools and high schools, and I got the distinct impression that Mr Bigelow probably conducts all of the tours himself.
The first room was dominated by the full-scale mockup of t/Space’s CXV that they were showing off to us and to Bigelow. There were also lots of models of rocket engines, Gemini Capsules, and other space memorabilia. After a brief introduction, Bigelow led us into the second room. This one was quite a bit bigger. It housed storyboards showing various aspects of the currently planned Nautilus station, as well as several interesting alternative future uses for his modules, including lunar bases, mars bases, and translunar cyclers. It also housed several test articles that they had tortured over the past few years.
I liked his table with several hypervelocity impact test samples. He had two pieces that had similar construction to the strongest part of the ISS’s micrometeor impact shield. They had fairly large holes in them, and one of them had a crack in the pressure vessel that probably would have ripped the module open. All from a small impactor going at about 7km/s relative velocity. That is extraordinarily fast, but there are probably pieces going that fast in LEO right now. LEO is really huge when you think of it, but the probabilities of hitting something with that kind of mass and velocity are definitely non-zero. Next to that, he had several examples of some of his older shielding ideas that had been through tests with similar velocities and masses. The shield had held up. Admittedly, they did throw a thicker (albeit lighter) shield at the problem, and for micrometeor impact protection, spacing between layers is what does most of the work. The first layer will usually vaporize the micrometeor, and any spacing just allows that jet to spread out over a larger and larger region.
There were several other pieces that were leftovers from hydrotests of their modules. They also had a scale model of the Genesis 1/3 scale inflatable that they plan on launching on a Dnepr sometime early next year. Bigelow did give a precise goal date, but I don’t think he meant it for public consumption. Genesis is mostly being flown to test out the inflation process, and to try and catch any hidden flaws or complications in the system. They had originally intended to fly on the inaugural Falcon V flight first, but since SpaceX is behind schedule, he bumped the first Genesis flight to Dnepr. I think they still intend to fly on Falcon V later once it’s available, but they wanted to start getting experience and data as quickly as possible.
Mr Bigelow then gave us a quick presentation about Nautilus, discussing many of the technical aspects like the longerons (which are used to take the launch loads), the reinforcement straps on the outside of the inflatable section, the windows, the testing they’re doing at the moment, and their plans for future testing. He also discussed a bit about the Nautilus station and some of their current and future plans for that. He did mentioned that at the moment they’re looking at several existing and proposed docking methods, with the Russian APAS system being a fallback in case they can’t get something better.
After taking a few questions, he then led us into a large room with the three full-scale Nautlius module mockups that were shown in Aviation Week several months back. Since there were three modules, he had three groups of five each go through at any given time, with him leading one group, and two of his engineers leading the other groups. These modules were quite spacious by space standards. They’re mostly being used at the moment to test out different ideas for internal layouts, and as a tour item. While in there, I was able to pick the brain a bit of the engineer who was giving us the tour. I had been curious to find out if Bigelow was interested in doing subscale versions of the module for potential use in lunar transfer vehicles or other applications. The answer I was given was that Bigelow would probably be willing to work out some sort of a deal if there was sufficient interest. I also asked him what the current plans were for launching the station, since the reported weight of 50,000lbs puts it at the upper end of what current ELVs can deliver to orbit. He mentioned that they were looking at several options, including launching all at once on a Delta IV Heavy, or maybe a Proton, or even The Stick if it gets developed. He also mentioned that if those didn’t pan out, or if a lighter lift but more affordable booster was on the market, that they might launch it in several pieces and fit it out on orbit. As it is, there’s a decent amount of on-orbit fitting out anyhow for an inflatable module, so this isn’t as big of a hassle. A lot of the quoted weight is probably in the water bags used for radiation control, and in other internal pieces, so maybe flying it on three or four Falcon Vs might be possible. He didn’t state what the minimum mass they could break it down into was though.
While we were waiting for everyone else to have a chance to look through the modules, we went back to the first room. I got to check out the t/Space CXV mockup, and Jim Voss let me try out their launch seats. I have to say that the concept they chose was rather non-obvious, and quite creative actually. The seats were very light, but felt that they could take the forces they’d need to. The module was quite roomy, in fact there was enough room to add an extra row of seats if needed. It’d be a bit crowded with 6 people on board instead of three, but for short flights, that might be reasonable.
After everyone had had a chance to go through the mockups, Bigelow took us over to their actual assembly building (which will double in size once they’re done with the new extension) next. This was a truly large building, which houses their machine shop, a huge vacuum chamber, and most of their actual hardware they’re making. They have a structural mockup they’re about to send to Russia in the next few months to allow them to get everything ready for the flight next year. Bigelow did mention that their new facility down in Houston is where most of the docking, controls, solar power, life support, and radiator work was going to be developed. This facility was mostly for building the actual structural pieces, the inflatable sections, and doing final assembly and integration. They’ve got a long way to go, but they’re making some solid progress so far.
On the way back to the first room in the other building for t/Space to show off their CXV module to Bigelow, I asked him about the Americas Space Prize, since he hadn’t mentioned it during his whole tour. I was curious to find out if they planned to do any publicity for the prize once they had more people signed up for it. The answer he gave seemed to miss the point of my question, but that may have just been poor phrasing on my part. He seemed to assume that I meant that Bigelow needed the publicity to raise money for the prize, which he assured me they didn’t. The impression he gave was that the prize was real, and he would pay out if anyone met the requirements, but it isn’t his main focus at the moment, and competitors may have to raise their money for the prize attempt without the benefit of a large PR campaign on his part. That may change as time goes on, but that was what I got from my brief question. I really hope that he does reevaluate that, because without low-cost, frequent access to his space station, I doubt he can close his business plan very well. Spending a bit of extra time, energy, and money to help build that market will pay off handsomely for him in the future.
Anyhow, as we boarded the bus on the way back from the tour, I couldn’t help but be impressed with what they’ve accomplished. I also was rather impressed by Mr Bigelow himself. In spite of being an extremely wealthy individual, who is a little bit on
the paranoid side when it comes to security, Bigelow came off as a rather normal, polite, and down-to-earth businessman. I hope he is succesful with this venture, and hope that next time I get a tour of a Bigelow inflatable, it is located a few hundred miles higher than this one was.