Aerospace pioneer Robert Bigelow plans to build expandable housing in space, and discusses his vision of a “new space race” with investigative reporter George Knapp. Bigelow invited KLAS-TV in as it watched a Russian rocket launch the company’s Genesis One test. Aired on July 12, 2006, on KLAS TV in Las Vegas. Part 1 of a 2 Part series.

The command center inside Bigelow Aerospace looks a bit Star Trek-ish. But the agenda on a July, 2006, morning was all too serious.

All eyes were focused on events half a world away. A Russian rocket called a Knepper blasted out of a silo at a Siberian military base. Tucked inside was a 14-foot-long experimental spacecraft called Genesis One, a one-third scale prototype of an expandable space habitat.

That’s the linchpin of what founder Robert Bigelow hopes will be a whole new space race, one that involves private companies instead of governments.

Robert Bigelow talks about expandable systems that his company, Bigelow Aerospace, is designing for housing modules and other uses. (KLAS-TV)

“Expandable systems are the wave of the 21st century,” Bigelow said. “They just make too much sense. And they should work and that’s what we’re all about is trying to validate will they will work.”

“Secondly, we’re into the economics of trying to make things affordable. For the first time in terms of habitable systems that have just not been available,” said Robert Bigelow, Owner of Bigelow Aerospace.

Bigelow launched his personal space program a mere six and a half years ago, and with virtually no fanfare. He and his team took up where NASA left off by designing light, sturdy, expandable space habitats that could house science experiments, commercial businesses, and of course, space tourists.

Bigelow made his fortune in the hotel business, so he knows plenty about how to run hotels, even in zero gravity. The I-Team was allowed to document the progress of the program at different stages as it struggled to overcome bureaucratic hurdles created by NASA and other agencies. Bigelow hired the Russian cosmic Trust Company, which is in charge of converting former nuclear missiles into commercial vehicles for carrying all sorts of things into space. That transaction not only took millions of dollars but required the okay of the State Department.

A rendering of the Genesis One, an expandable module to test a design for housing in space. (KLAS-TV)

After receiving word from Siberia Wednesday morning that the launch went well, the Bigelow team had to wait for several hours to find out whether Genesis One would function and whether it was in the correct orbit. No biggie, all they have riding on it is the future of the company and of space exploration.

“There’s been a lull and there hasn’t been a whole lot of activity that the public’s been excited about or being allowed to participate in. Mr. Bigelow is changing that,” said Project Manager, Eric Haakonstad.

Will regular people get to travel to space someday soon?

“I think so. Yeah, I think if we can do things that are safe and functional, user friendly and economical, I think it can be a big deal,” Bigelow said.