Bigelow Aerospace is developing the first private space station. A 1/3 scale model, called Genesis I, was launched on July 13, 2006. The inflatable structure of Genesis I is revolutionary, but it was hardy created overnight.
The Story of the Genesis I begins at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Texas in 1997.
Dr. William Schneider joined NASA in 1962 and went on to work as an Aerospace Engineer working on flight components for Apollo. He moved through different divisions at JSC until he was made Senior Engineer for Space Systems and Assistant Director for Engineering. In 1997 he created the basic architecture for the Transit Habitat or TransHab for short.
TransHab was designed to transport six astronauts on an interplanetary trip, such as a Mars mission. It was then chosen as a possible habitation module for the International Space Station in order to prove the concept.
A team of engineers, architects, and human factors experts at the Johnson Space Center developed the best size and layout for the spacecraft. TransHab was the first space habitat with a endoskeleton. It consisted of a dual system: a light, reconfigurable central structure and a deployable pressure shell. In order to deal with the riggers of space, the shell was made of several layers, each with its own specific purpose.
The layers allowed the TransHab, when inflated, to withstand up to 4 atmospheres, or 54 PSI, of pressure differential between interior and exterior. The shell also provides insulation from temperatures in space that can range from plus 121 degrees Celsius, or 250 degrees Fahrenheit, in the Sun to -128 degrees Celsius, or -200 degrees Fahrenheit, on the dark side. All this, while allowing 13,000 ft3 to fit a launch configuration of 14 ft in diameter. A standard exoskeleton would have a diameter of roughly 27 feet.
All these benefits made TransHab a potential miracle to NASA's Mars Design Reference Mission (DRM), as the crew habitat for the journey between planets. The plan was to launch the TransHab in a space shuttle bay, deflated, and packaged tight; once in orbit it can be unfolded, inflated, and deployed.
However, as Congress is apt to do in a budget crunch, TransHab was canceled in 2000. This is not the end of the story, but the beginning.
Robert Bigelow graduated from Arizona State University with a BS in Business Administration. He went out into the world and put his degree to good use. Budget Suites of America, founded by Mr. Bigelow and Bigelow Management Inc, is a multimillion dollar hotel chain in Nevada, Arizona, and Texas with it’s headquarters in Las Vegas.
Needless to say after this success, Mr. Bigelow was not hurting for money. It is at this point in their life, a person’s hobbies can become much more. Robert Bigelow started the National Institute for Discovery Science in 1995 in Las Vegas. Its mission was to engage in research of aerial phenomena, animal mutilations, and other related anomalous phenomena. However, research was halted in 2004 due to a lack of investigative work.
All the while, Mr. Bigelow started Bigelow Aerospace in 1999. His goal was to put ordinary people into space. When he heard the TransHab project was cancelled, he tracked down Dr. Schneider, who was now a Professor at Texas A&M University. Bigelow bought the exclusive development rights from NASA and entered into a Space Act Agreement with the agency to allow him to work with former TransHab engineers still employed there. To this day, TransHab engineers come to Bigelow’s plant and help to make this dream a reality.
This was no pet project for Robert Bigelow. Between 2002 and 2006 he invested $75 million dollars with a promise of up to $500 million. His goal was nothing short of a private Space Station orbiting the Earth. While this may have seemed “pie in the sky” a few years ago, Mr. Bigelow and his engineers were not deterred.
After the flights of SpaceShipOne and the now famous X-Prize, Bigelow launched his own prize, The American Space Prize. Mr. Bigelow put up $50 million of his own money to anyone who could launch five people to his station and bring them back safely by 2010. A tall order, to be sure, but we will see if it is doable.
Regardless of whether anyone could win this prize, Mr. Bigelow continued with his development of 1/3 scale model test modules to be launched in 2006. After rocket scheduling problems and the ever present ITAR paperwork, the date was set to launch on the ISC Kosmotras Dnepr on June 16, 2006.
As will most rocket launches this one was delayed. The new window was July 4 – July 14, 2006 and this time, nothing would stop Bigelow Aerospace. On July 13, 2006 the Dnepr Rocket lifted off with Genesis I securely attached.
Separation from the rocket was confirmed 14 minutes after launch. But communications from the craft would have to wait. SpaceQuest, of Arlington, VA, was contracted by Bigelow Aerospace to handle the initial communications. As the hour that link-up with Genesis I approached a power outage in Arlington, VA caused some amount of panic. Engineers literally ran an extension cord across the highway to a restaurant with power just in time to get the first hello world from Genesis I.
As it turned out Genesis I is in nearly perfect working order, an amazing achievement unto itself. Bigelow is not resting on his laurels, though. A second Genesis II is set to launch later this fall.
Space Pragmatism wishes everyone at Bigelow Aerospace all the best in their future launches.
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