June 26, 2009 -- Imagine yourself, sometime in the next decade, with a fantastic idea for a new business that requires manufacturing in the weightlessness of space. Or maybe, having made your fortune on Earth, you'd simply like to vacation in a very high place.
The Russians charge upward of $50 million for a short trip to the International Space Station. NASA can't help you at all. But there's a Nevada company ready to offer a month's stay in Earth orbit for $15 million -- a bargain, considering that for 40 years, the cost of space travel has stubbornly refused to come down.
Sounds like one of those things guaranteed never to happen? Maybe, but Robert Bigelow has two prototype space habitats, unmanned but functional, orbiting 350 miles above Earth, right now.
"If we're not successful, I think other countries will be," said Bigelow from his office near Las Vegas. "I think NASA is on the verge of being irrelevant, except for deep space exploration."
Bigelow made his fortune in the hotel business -- the Budget Suites chain of extended-stay hotels is his -- and is literally trying to take the idea to the next level. His Genesis I and Genesis II spacecraft were launched by Russian missiles (much cheaper than American rockets) in 2006 and 2007. Each completes an orbit roughly once every hour and 34 minutes.
Genesis and Sundancer
Everything about them is outside-the-box. The two ships are inflatable -- though with walls made from a super-strong fabric called Vectran, they cannot easily be punctured. (A micrometeoroid might actually bounce off.) They folded up neatly inside a rocket's nose cone for launch, and then opened in orbit. It's an idea NASA tried and discarded for part of the space station.
Bigelow Aerospace is now working on its next ship, called Sundancer, which could be large enough to house three space travelers in orbit. Even the attitude thrusters (small jets to keep it properly pointed as it floats in space) are unconventional. Space shuttles use a highly toxic fuel called hydrazine. But Bigelow this week announced a deal to experiment with hydrogen and oxygen, made from water.
Where do you get water in orbit? From the sweat and urine of your hotel guests.
Inflatable, Affordable Space Habitat
A tiny Alabama startup, Orion Propulsion, will make the thruster system. "We're burning the byproducts of living on orbit, instead of bringing fuel along the way they used to," said Tim Pickens, Orion's founder.
Bigelow has a colorful reputation; he's reportedly been interested in UFOs and the paranormal. But when he talks about space, he sounds like he wants to start something perfectly down-to-earth, like, perhaps, extended-stay hotels.
"We're not counting on NASA as a customer, and we're not counting on space tourism," he said. Instead, he plans to approach countries that want but can't afford their own space programs, and companies that want to do manufacturing or Earth observations from orbit.
"Think of us as if we were building an office building in space," said Bigelow. "Other countries or corporations would be our tenants."
Starting in Your Garage
How can a handful of small companies make any of this work, when NASA has had to spend a reported $100 billion on its space station? Orion Propulsion has only 35 employees.
"I started out of my garage," said Pickens. "Folks like Mr. Bigelow knew it would be personal with me, that I would be losing sleep at night to meet the schedule."
"We're not a government contractor yet," said Bigelow. "That's a world where there are tons of meetings. We can't afford to take 30 days to make a decision."
There are still big, big hurdles to overcome, not the least of which is that Bigelow does not have an affordable rocket yet that can safely launch guests to the ships. He's counting on another self-made multimillionaire -- Elon Musk, who started PayPal and now has a rocket company called SpaceX -- or perhaps he'll use the Atlas V, a workhorse rocket derived from the one that launched John Glenn in 1962.
"He may fail. Most do," said Howard McCurdy, a professor at American University who studies space policy. "But he might succeed." Startup companies like Bigelow's don't have the "standing armies" of people, McCurdy said, that make operations like NASA's expensive.
"What's cool about these entrepreneurs," said Pickens, "is they can be the game changers."