Sunday, February 11, 2007

Money Backing the Private Space Industry... Part 3--Robert Bigelow

Continued from part 1 and part 2...
Robert Bigelow has expressed his disappointment in the development of manned space exploration. Growing up captivated by the Apollo 11 moon landing Bigelow has said, "It's been 30 years since the last beginning and we don't have anything to show for it but memories. People are tired of memories." This time he is doing something about it. After acquiring his fortune through his Las Vegas hotel chain Budget Suites of America, he pledged to spend up to $500 million by 2015 to give manned space exploration a much needed boost.

Bigelow envisions a whole new breed of hotels: Space Hotels. He has plans of offering a 330-cubic-meter space station (about the size of a 3 bedroom house) for a paltry $1 million a night. Guests will fly around the Earth every 90 minutes traveling 17,500 miles/hour and absorb spectacular views of the Earth and the surrounding galaxy. Learning weightless acrobatics will also become a common pastime for guests.

Already built, inflatable Nautilus modules.
These incredible ambitions are not from idle words either. His pledge to front $500 million for the project and the successful launch of Genesis I, the 1/3 scale model Transhab, have already been mentioned (see article) but what else has brought this project closer to reality than most would have ever thought possible? Well, for one, a deal has already been made between Bigelow Aerospace and Elon Musk's SpaceX to have the Falcon 9 launch an expandable space-station in the first quarter of 2008. A $50 million "America's Space Prize" has also been presented by Bigelow for the group who can create a spacecraft that can take 5 or more people to an altitude of 400 km, demonstrate the ability to dock with a Bigelow Aerospace inflatable space habitat, and repeat the trip within 60 days. The deadline is Jan. 10, 2010. The real prize though, is the potential $200 million purchase agreement for six flights of a selected vehicle. This can be awarded to a company after the deadline if it is preferred over the winner's design. In addition to the $200 million deal there is another $800 million available in options contracts for 24 flights over a span of about 4 to 4.5 years!

Like Jeff Bezos (see part 1), Bigelow displays sincere ambitions too. His life's dream is very similar to mine (see site purpose). He was only 15 years old when he vowed to devote his life to establishing a permanent human presence in space. Already aware of the difficulties it would take he knew he would need money--lots of it. Soon after his vow, he aggressively began laying the foundation for accumulating his wealth. He followed in his father's footsteps by studying real estate and banking at Arizona State University. Upon graduation, he immediately put his real estate education into practice by buying small rental properties. Three years later, in 1970, he constructed his first apartment house, a 40-unit building. For the next two decades he continued expanding by building dozens of apartment buildings and motels in the Las Vegas area. In 1988 he founded his lucrative Budget Suites of America.

Concept design of a completed space hotel.
All throughout this time, Bigelow kept space in the back of his head and only in the back of his head. The motivation for his ambitious expansion of his company was kept entirely secret. I didn’t even tell my wife,” he says. “She never knew. Because it’s possible that that kind of dream would never happen.” Serendipity struck in 1999 when Bigelow stumbled upon a NASA project for a radical new space station concept. The radical concept was called the Transhab project. In 2000 NASA canceled it for no apparent reason and so Bigelow bought the exclusive development rights. Bigelow believes he can accomplish what NASA couldn't because of his business expertise. "I’ve put together many, many projects involving a lot of money and a lot of people,” he says, and unlike NASA, “I’m used to doing things pretty darn well on budget and pretty darn well on time.

Thus ends my 3 part series on the money behind the dream. I hope you learned something new about the private space industry or perhaps became inspired yourself to join the industry!

To read more about the Transhab technology NASA provides a great article that covers the basics.

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Nick said...

With these last articles it seems that money for these new space exploration ideas is available. When this stuff picks up and the technology gets right people will want to experience space but it sounds like people will have to pay big bucks to get a piece of the action. I think if the industry wants to bloom, it needs to sacrifice profits. Even though thats long off, will the entrepreneurs of this new industry be willing to continue funding out of their pockets or are they going to switch to profit mode?

Pat said...

I know that Bigelow plans on making a profit but I really think that this first generation is in it for the love of it-for the most part at least. I think as technology increases and more competition continues growing prices will become more affordable.

You're right though, the industry does need to sacrifice profits right now but I can't imagine that so many experienced and successful business men would be willing to back this effort without a potential for profit. Let's just hope the theory of capitalism works to the consumer's advantage :).

Rebecca said...

This will not have effect in reality, that is what I believe.

Robert Hildebrand said...

Back in the early 90s NASA asked the public for ides pertaining to a possible future trip to Mars. I was one of probably many that suggested the idea of inflatable rooms. To legitimize my idea I droned on about today only inflatable boats were being used for white water rafting. The use of Steel, aluminum, and fiberglass boats had long been abandoned. Spare rooms could be stored as replacements in case of emergencies, or used as storage. I am thrilled with all the news of inflatable rooms being aired. I like to think that I actually had something to do with it. Maybe??