Bigelow contribution to space exploration is all about the space — Part 2

Space Science

A Las Vegas hotel developer is tantalizingly close to his dream of building a hotel in space. But a tourism destination is just a tiny part of what this businessman has in mind. Bigelow Aerospace has signed agreements to send new technology into space soon. Channel 8 is the only news organization being allowed into the secretive operation. Aired on May 26, 2004, on KLAS TV in Las Vegas. Second of 2 parts.


Bigelow Aerospace kept the lid on its progress since the I-Team first visited the plant in 2002. But now the company has signed an agreement to work with NASA and it has contracts for its first two launches into space. The company has done it all without one dime of government money.

Stunning images from the surface of Mars seem to have rekindled public interest in a vigorous space program, but most experts predict it won’t be a government program that gets us into space for good, it will be a commercial effort.

The full-size Nautilus module inside a hangar at Bigelow Aerospace. (KLAS-TV)

Bigelow Aerospace first gained attention for its North Las Vegas undertaking by suggesting a hotel in space. An inflatable habitat being developed at the plant would likely work well as a hotel. But its true value is in other endeavors because it’s so light and could triple the amount of usable space in space. The Bigelow Nautilus could make space affordable for private companies, so they could pursue new technologies in microgravity and perhaps change life on Earth.

Glenn Miller, assistant director of engineering at the Johnson Space Center, and a frequent visitor to Bigelow Aerospace. (KLAS-TV)

NASA’s Glenn Miller said Bigelow’s projects could make new advances possible. “(If I could have) a big facility, a lot of room where I can manufacture large quantities in orbit and bring those back, then that would be a big step forward in commercialization and the direct effect on humans on Earth as far as cheaper medicines, cheaper whole spectrum.”

Miller, assistant director of engineering at the Johnson Space Center, is one of many NASA personnel to work hand in hand with Bigelow Aerospace as part of a joint effort. The Bigelow model is based, in part, on NASA’s now canceled TransHab program. NASA not only shares its experts, it has handed over to Bigelow its patented technology from TransHab, and Bigelow has taken off from there.

Technology developed for NASA’s “TransHab” project was turned over to Bigelow Aerospace. (KLAS-TV)

A smaller working model of Nautilus is set for launch aboard a private rocket in November of 2005. A second launch contract has been signed with a Russian company pending approval by the U.S. State Department.

Bob Bigelow is confident that he will eventually have his own space station, one with more livable habitat than the $50 billion International Space Station and built for a fraction of the cost.

The project has been kept hush-hush, but the lid is coming off. A room at the North Las Vegas plant will soon be used for tours by local science students where they will see step by step how the Nautilus was developed and what it can do, and they’ll walk around inside various prototypes. The results of hundreds of safety tests conducted on the new materials being developed will also be on display. Students will learn about tests in which the habitats are stretched beyond their limits. Improved safety could be the most important part of what Nautilus represents.

A rendering of a Nautilus Leo space station. (KLAS-TV)

“Inflatable technology is a much lighter weight structure,” Miller said. “It provides much more protection for humans inside of it than the metal cans. And it’s turning out to be relatively cheap.”

“If I can get more up there at a cheaper price you can really open up the whole space to other people, commercialization,” he said.

A long-term mission to Mars, for example, would be risky business for astronauts and the tiny rockets of yesteryear. But larger, safer quarters would provide greater protection as well as be less of a psychological strain. If this technology works, it makes long range space exploration more likely. NASA says this is the technology that could make it happen.

If it’s going to be any time in our lifetime. It’s going to involve this technology.

Glenn Miller, assistant director of engineering at NASA’s Johnson Space Center

Simply put, scientists can do things in microgravity that they can’t do here on Earth. They can pursue new medicines, new materials for manufacturing, improvements in fiber optics, all sorts of things not even imagined just yet. Long term space exploration may be made possible, even affordable, by the quiet work underway at the facility in North Las Vegas. It’s progressing very fast considering the company itself didn’t exist until five years ago.

Other private companies are working on launch vehicles and return vehicles, but Bigelow is the only company, maybe in the world, that’s working on inflatable habitat.

Robert Bigelow’s vision is centered on making space accessible and interesting to the public as the next space race moves into the private sector. (KLAS-TV)

Bob Bigelow admits that it may never make any money but he thinks it’s worth the gamble. He figures he can sell modules for $100 million apiece, far less than what the government can make them for. If there’s enough interest, eventually it will pay off.


Previous story:
Bigelow’s expandable modules cheaper, better than space station

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