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Wed, Jun 09, 2010

Commercial Company Plans Privately-Funded Space Station

Hopes To Have Assembly Underway In 2014

The mockups look like big, white watermelons sitting on a factory floor, but what they represent could be home to as many as 36 people at a time in space.

Bigelow Aerospace is developing what it expects to be the first commercial space station. Built of multiple layers of an expandable Kevlar-like material with the outer layer coated with a micrometeoroid and orbital debris shield, Bigelow hopes to have paying customers aboard the Sundancer space station in five years. Company founder Robert T. Bigelow says he thinks those customers would primarily be nations that are not able to build their own space station from the ground up, so to speak

The New York Times reports that Bigelow already has two test modules in orbit, launched in 2006 and 2007. The Las Vegas, Nevada-based company has a business plan to buy as many as 15-20 rocket launches beginning in 2017, and each subsequent year after that, providing a lot of business for companies like SpaceX on which President Obama has placed much of the responsibility for moving forward with the U.S. space program. Bigelow thinks for the foreseeable future, his company is the only potential buyer for slots on manned space flights other than NASA.

Bigelow made his fortune in real estate, including the Budget Suites of America hotel chain. He has so far spent $180 million of his own money on the private space station concept, and says he's willing to spend nearly twice that again to see the program through. There are expansion plans for the current factory, which is surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards. The company currently employs about 100 people, but that would grow as well if the project is successful.

The design is based on the TransHab modules that were being developed by NASA for a possible Mars mission, and have been "absolutely verified," according to former NASA senior design engineer Dr. William Schnieder who did the work at the Johnson Space Center.

One major hurdle that remains is that there is not currently a vehicle that can economically transport astronauts to and from the station once it's in orbit. Bigelow at one point offered a $50 million dollar prize to a company that could develop an orbital spacecraft, but it expired in January with no one attempting to claim it. He is currently working with Boeing to build on the design the aerospace giant was developing for NASA.

Bigelow told the Times that he can operate a space station much more efficiently than NASA and its international partners. He says that while the logistics of running a space station are different from a hotel chain, the principles are largely the same, and that he would hire the people with the necessary skills to fix the inevitable glitches, as well as supply the station with such staples as food, water, and air.

Meanwhile, NASA is showing a renewed interest in an inflatable module for ISS, and it's a project on which Bigelow is consulting, because, he says, "we can do it much more economically."

FMI: www.bigelowaerospace.com

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