If you wander over to the Space section of this blog you won’t have to look far to figure out which company I have a huge man crush on. Whilst SpaceX might be the toast of the private space flight industry thanks to their incredibly impressive achievements and lofty goals they’re far from the only player in the game and they’re really only currently focused on getting cargo and people into orbit, keeping them there is still someone else’s job. This isn’t to say that no one is working on solving that particular problem however and Bigelow Aerospace, a company I’ve mentioned in passing a couple times, is one such company.
Bigelow Aerospace is the brain child of Robert Bigelow funded primarily from the fortune he made from his ownership stake in the Budget Suites of America hotel chain. Unlike most private space companies which are primarily focusing on the launch side of the equation Bigelow is instead focusing solely on the staying up there part, developing technology for a new kind of space station that promises to deliver much larger usable volumes at a fraction of the cost of traditional space station modules. They’re in fact so far along the development path that they already have 2 of their modules Genesis I and Genesis II in orbit right now and they’ve been there for the better part of 6 and 5 years respectively.
Their modules are based off of a pretty novel idea that NASA was developing back in the early 1990s. Dubbed TransHab the idea was to be able to build modules that were of a certain size when launched but could then be inflated once in orbit to provide much more room. Additionally the inflatable design means that it’s much more resistant to micrometeorite impacts as the outer surface will flex, reducing risks to the crew and lowering ongoing maintenance costs. Unfortunately due to the budget overruns of the International Space Station project the TransHab was ultimately cancelled but Bigelow licensed the technology from NASA and set about creating his own versions of them.
The goal for Bigelow was to start up his own private space stations in orbit, essentially extending his hotel chain to outer space. Whilst they’ve had functional verification of their systems for a long time now their biggest issue was a lack of transportation methods in order to get people up there. Seats on Soyuz craft are now going for upwards of $50 million dollars and Bigelow’s plans just aren’t feasible at that price point. Indeed the current lack of usable alternatives prompted Bigelow to slash its staffing by over half at the end of 2011 although they have begun rehiring now in preparation for the availability of such services coming online in 2016.
What is pretty incredible though was the recent news that Bigelow has won a contract with NASA to provide an inflatable module for the International Space Station. Whilst there’s scant details about what the module will actually be (that’s apparently scheduled for a press conference today) it’s a safe bet that it’d be something like their planned BA-330 although it’s entirely possible that they might go for gold and debut their giant BA-2100 (pictured above) which would almost triple the current liveable volume of the ISS. It may seem counter-intuitive for NASA to buy their own technology back off a private manufacturer but Bigelow has invested some $180 million into getting the project this far, a sum that I’m sure no one at NASA wanted to spend when they already have so much invested in rigid modules.
The amount of innovation we’re seeing in the private space industry is simply staggering as we’re fast approaching the point where the only thing that stands between you and your own private space station is the capital required. Sure that’s still no small barrier but the fact that we’re commoditizing space travel means that it’ll soon be something that will be within reach for all of us, much like the commercialization of air flight last century. NASA’s contract with Bigelow is proof that the nascent space company is at the point where it’s technology is ready for prime time and I can’t wait to see one of their modules up in space.
For almost the past 2 decades NASA, and by association every other space faring nation, has been treading water when it comes to pioneering new space technologies. Granted we have not been without achievement, far from it, however the blazing progress that once propelled NASA and its constituents forward is a distant memory. The benefits from the first space race are still being felt today (it’s likely you’re viewing this blog post on one of them) so you can see why there are so many lofty space enthusiasts like myself who look back at a time when science and inspiration went hand in hand to achieve something that was considered impossible only a decade previously. The future is looking a lot brighter as of late because of the private space industry finally coming up to speed with NASA’s achievements, but this morning it looked positively blinding.
Just on 3 months ago President Obama announced a new vision for the future of NASA. My initial reactions to it were mostly negative but after considering the place NASA holds in our world, that of a pioneer in space, I came to see that it wasn’t a fall from what they currently are and more it was a return to what they should be. It appears that the next step has been taken towards the ultimate goal of accomplishing this with the announcement of the Flagship Technology Demonstrations:
The latest in a series of requests for information (RFIs) from NASA under its proposed Fiscal 2011 budget lists six “flagship” space testbeds costing $400 million to $1 billion each that would push technologies needed for exploration beyond low Earth orbit.
The first would be launched by 2014, with three more to go by 2016 and one every 12 to 18 months after that. Technologies include in-space fuel depots; advanced solar-electric propulsion; lightweight modules, including inflatables; aerocapture and/or landing at asteroids and larger bodies; automated rendezvous and docking; and closed-loop life support systems.
• Concepts for spacecraft buses that could use NASA’s NEXT ion propulsion system and an advanced solar array for a 30-kilowatt solar-electric propulsion stage, and which would be scalable to higher power levels.• Flight architecture suggestions for on-orbit cryogenic fuel storage and transfer within a single vehicle and between separate vehicles, with a list of detailed questions to be answered.
• Inflatable-module concepts that would follow earlier in-house work at NASA, with an inflatable shell opening around a central core that would be pressurized at launch.
• Mission concepts using inflatable or deployable aeroshells for aerocapture at Mars and return to Earth of 10-ton vehicles, as well as precision landing on “both low-G and high-G worlds.”
• Concepts for demonstrating closed-loop life support in a module on the International Space Station (ISS), and perhaps on an inflatable module flown under a separate flagship demonstration.
• Concepts for using the ISS as a target for automated rendezvous and docking missions, accomplishing the docking with the low-impact docking system under development at Johnson Space Center.
All of these points echo the original vision as previously laid out by Obama. This is fantastic news and the aggressive timeline for debuting these technologies means that NASA will be once again at the forefront of space exploration. To give you an idea of just how revolutionary these ideas are I’ll give you a run down of how each of them will change the way we explore space.
The first point hints at what would be a high powered ion drive something which would be of high value for long duration flights. If you think you’ve heard this before you’d be right as VASIMIR (which is not of NASA origin) is a very similar concept that is scheduled to be flown to the ISS either next year or the year after. Such propulsion systems allow for very efficient use of propellant which, to use the ISS as an example, could reduce post-orbit fuel required by up to 90%. Reducing the mass you take with you to orbit is always one of the goals when taking things into space, and developing this kind of technology is one of the best ways to accomplish that.
On orbit fuel stations are something that are going to be a must for any long duration space flight, including those missions with us squishy humans. Right now many craft are limited in their payload due to the fact that they have to carry up substantial amounts of fuel with them. With on-orbit fuel stations they can be made to be quite a lot lighter, thereby increasing their effective payload significantly. Couple this wit the high efficiency ion drives and you’ve got yourself a recipe for much cheaper and infinitely more productive missions, helping us push the boundaries of human exploration once again.
One of the decisions from the United States congress was the banning of any further development of the TransHab inflatable module design back in 2000. The idea was that you could launch the module deflated and then inflate it on orbit, letting you keep the payload size down whilst giving you an enormous amount of space once deployed. Compare the largest module on the ISS currently, the Kibo laboratory at 4.2m long and 4.4m in diameter, to the TransHabs ginormous 7.0m long and 8.2 in diameter and you can see what I mean, that thing is massive. So whilst it’s taken a decade for them to come full circle and realise that the tech has some real potential (we’ve got Mr Bigelow to thank for that) we may soon see such modules attached to the ISS or its successor. I think current and future astronauts would welcome the additional space.
The aeroshell idea is nothing new but the weight of the craft they’re planning to use with it is. The most famous example of the aeroshell design would be the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity. These little guys only weigh in at a total of 180kg and the idea of anything larger using this design has, for the most part, been laughed off. The most recent expedition to Mars, the Phoenix Lander, was around 350kg and instead used rockets to perform the landing. Scaling up the design to larger payloads would enable much larger missions to planets that contained significant atmosphere, as well as paving the way for future astronauts to land on such places.
The final two points are merely an extension of on-going activities. Many of the life support systems that are currently aboard the ISS are squarely aimed at making it more self sufficient with things like the water recovery system which was flown up last year. Many of the Russian vehicles that visit the ISS use automated docking facilities already and Europe has demonstrated that it is capable of such feats to when the Jules Verne ATV docked last year. This would more than likely end up with a few modifications to the US parts of the ISS, but nothing too drastic.
All in all, these are some damned good goals to be shooting for and they really can’t come any faster. Whilst we won’t have any flag planting moments for a while to come I can see that shortly after we achieve all these goals I can see them coming thick and fast afterwards. It might not look like the plan we had a decade ago but its one that we’ll need to stick to if we want the future of space to look as bright as it did over 40 years ago.
Ever since the glory days of Gemini and Apollo NASA has struggled to figure out exactly what their goals will be with human space exploration. This is not to say that they’ve lost all direction, far from it. The majority of NASA’s robotic endeavours have been quite successful and they continue to push the envelope in this space. However when it comes to putting us fleshy beings into the great black vacuum of space they, and in the interest of full disclosure no one else, has managed to send humans any further than low earth orbit for the past 4 decades.
My regular readers will know that I put the majority of blame directly on the US congress as NASA makes for an easy target for budget cuts to spend on other policies. However NASA isn’t blameless in this either with nearly every program they’ve run coming in over budget, past deadline and not entirely to initial specification. The reason behind this is easily demonstrated when you have companies with employees totalling in the hundreds, ala SpaceX, managing to achieve what NASA has done with almost 18,000. A good chunk of that is dedicated entirely to the Shuttle program so NASA will look a lot leaner in the near future but the overwhelming amount of people and thus the bureaucracy that follows it have done nothing to help NASA in achieving its goals.
You might be wondering then what brought this rant on about NASA’s past when I only recently extolled the virtues of their new vision. Well it seems that NASA has failed to learn from its past and has set its sights on developing technology that it has already developed (and in fact, licensed out to a private company):
Astronauts may one day orbit the Earth in roomy balloons instead of cramped tin cans, now that NASA has made inflatable space habitats a priority.
The White House announced a change in direction for NASA on 1 February. Instead of the planned crewed missions to the moon, the agency intends to pour money into research and development (New Scientist, 13 February 2010, p 8).
The outline listed technologies on NASA’s wish list but provided few details. Now NASA has fleshed out its plans in a detailed budget proposal posted on its website on 22 February. One section notes that balloon-like habitats “can be larger, lighter, and potentially less expensive” than traditional ones made of rigid metal walls. They could be used as space stations, or eventually as moon bases. NASA may send inflatable structures to the International Space Station to test their mettle – including their ability to shield against space radiation.
Does that sound familiar to anyone? The technology in question was developed by NASA and called Transhab which was in essence an inflatable space station module that could fit atop of current generation rockets yet deliver almost 3 times the volume of the Columbus module. To say that they were a good idea was a bit of an understatement as not only did they deliver more space on the cheap they were also quite a lot more resilient to things like micrometeorite strikes due to the flexible nature of the material used.
They were such a good idea that space entrepreneur Robert Bigelow licensed the technology from NASA to develop his own line of space habitats under his own company Bigelow Aerospace. You could easily write these guys off as just another startup that had yet to produce anything but they’ve already launched 2 of their own modules with a third (which will be able to take humans on board) well on the way. It would make you wonder then that since the technology is viable, even from a commercial point of view, why did NASA drop it?
As always the blame lies with congress who passed House Resolution 1654 that effectively banned NASA from researching and building their own Transhab structures (as well as climate research, go figure). Luckily HR1654 doesn’t stop NASA from actually using inflatable modules on the station so we may just see some Bigelow hardware on the ISS sometime in the future, but only time will tell.
So you can see why I get all up in arms about the way NASA is handled by the US congress. They’re constantly meddling in their affairs which makes it extremely difficult for them to develop technologies that will make space cheaper and more pervasive than it is today. I’ll admit that this is out of a selfish desire to see cheap space access for myself and all of mankind but with the countless benefits of space technologies and exploration being reaped by us all you can see why I believe in it so much. Whilst the private space industry looks bright I still worry about our forefathers in NASA who’ve had their lust for being on the bleeding edge sated by the red tape of congress.
There’s one part of my brain that seems to sit there quietly until I get into the fun situation of wanting something to happen and it being too good to be true. It’s like a cognitive dissonance detector which springs into action whenever I have conflicting thoughts about a matter and it’s served me well in the past. I remember once being asked by a gentleman, who was cleanly dressed but seemed rather panicked, that he needed a lift into town to get to his girlfriend who was in a car crash. I wasn’t going where he needed to go so I had to decline him, but that part of my brain felt the story was bull. After picking up my fellow blogging friend I went to said location to check, and lo and behold there was no crash to speak of. As it turns out this person was known to my friend and he has been pulling that scam for years now, but apparently he usually asks for bus fare instead of a ride. That same part of my brain flared up when I read this article:
Some forward-looking vacationers have already booked a stay at the first space hotel, which is on track to open in 2012, according to the owners of the planned orbital resort.
Spacefarers can book a three-night stay at the Galactic Suite Space Resort for $4.4 million, the Barcelona-based company planning the hotel has said. So far 43 paying guests have already reserved a spot, while more than 200 have expressed interest, Galactic Suite Ltd’s CEO Xavier Claramunt told Reuters.
Despite Claramunt’s confidence, critics have questioned whether the hotel can really be ready so soon, and whether the company has enough money to see the plan through. Claramunt said an anonymous billionaire has fronted the company $3 billion to finance the project.
Let’s be generous and say that 2012 can mean December 31st and that gives them around 3 years to design, build and flight test a new space habitat. That’s an exceedingly aggressive timeline for any kind of space craft, especially those ones that are designed to support human life for any amount of time. Whilst I’m excited at the prospect that there’s a potential competitor in the world of space tourism I can’t help but look at this with a healthy dose of skepticism.
First off there’s already a company that’s been planning to do this thing for a long time, and that’s Bigelow Aerospace. These guys are the real deal, founded by chain hotel entrepreneur Robert Bigelow they were founded back in 1999 after Robert achieved his dream of making enough money to found his own space hotel company. They took the ingenious way of creating a space hotel, licensing technology from NASA. Specifically it was the transhab design which is in essence an inflatable space capsule that allows you to create very large structures in space whilst keeping the payload size small and light. The reason I say these guys are the real deal is that they have already launched 2 of their transhab modules into space, Genesis I and II. What really makes me all giggly when I hear about them is that they’re already in cahoots with SpaceX for launching their next module Sundancer which will form the base of their first commercial space station. Bigelow and his team really have the whole idea down pat and will be the first private company to have a fully functioning space station.
Can you see the difference between Bigelow and Galactic Suite? Bigelow has been at this for 10 years and have still yet to put a livable habitat up there. The earliest references I’ve seen about Galactic suite are from 2007, meaning that they’ll just be celebrating their 5 year anniversary when they’re ready to take paying customers. Since all we’ve seen from them so far is pretty renders and small scale models I can’t believe that they will be ready in time for the deadline they’ve set themselves.
That’s not the only problem with their idea either. The article makes reference to them using “Russian rockets” to get their guests to the hotels. Now this isn’t a bad idea per say, the Russians have always been pretty accommodating to space tourists in order to get some cash flow into their operations. In fact Space Adventures recently managed to up their capacity by purchasing some extra capacity from Energia who said they could build 5 Soyuz craft per year rather than 4. But that’s also their problem, the only “Russian rocket” that would be available to take space tourists into space would be the Soyuz and currently the company making the flights is maxed out supplying Rosaviakosmos and Space Adventures. Unless they have some in with a Russian program that I don’t know about and the Russians aren’t speaking about their plan to get people to their hotel isn’t going to work. I would’ve cut them some slack if they said they were going to use Dragon capsules from SpaceX as that has enough unknowns in it to make it slightly possible but with them supplying Bigelow and NASA I’d still be casting a skeptical eye their way.
Just like with the Neptune launch system I’ll happily eat my words should these guys ever actually launch anything. I’m all for competition in space as in the long run it means cheaper access to space for us all, something which I believe that everyone should experience in their lifetimes. Still every time one of these stories crosses my radar I can’t help but feel a little bit of disappointment, as promises that never materialize do nothing but damage the wider worlds’ view of the space tourism industry. They say no publicity is bad publicity but in this case, the emerging industry suffers greatly at the hands of the vaporware peddlers.