Bigelow Aerospace CEO Reveals Ambitious Future Plans for Human Spaceflight
[Satellite News 05-25-11] Earlier this year, Bigelow Aerospace signed a major deal with the Emirates Institution for Advanced Science and Technology, (EIAST) to initiate a new next-generation human spaceflight program. Bigelow Aerospace wants to provide affordable options for spaceflight to national space agencies and corporate clients and has linked up with EIAST to help with these ambitions.
Robert Bigelow, CEO, Bigelow Aerospace, told Satellite News that this was a major breakthrough for the company in the Middle East. “This is Bigelow Aerospace’s first MOU executed with a country in the Gulf Region and is therefore very significant and exciting. This agreement represents the start of a joint effort by the EIAST and ourselves to allow Dubai and the citizens of the UAE to enjoy the economic, political, scientific and educational benefits of human spaceflight,” he says. “The ultimate goal of this MOU is for the UAE to develop its own astronaut corps which will utilize Bigelow Aerospace’s next-generation space station. If successful, a future relationship would be manifested in the form of a leasing arrangement.”
As far as the timeline and what will happen next, Bigelow adds, “We are quite confident in regard to our own technology and capabilities. The issue always has been and remains the availability of commercial crew transportation. Assuming commercial crew transportation systems make good progress, our hope is to be able to deploy our station in roughly four years and begin commercial operations a year after that. The key milestones to watch out for are, will Congress provide the necessary funding for the commercial crew program and how quickly can the companies involved deploy actual hardware. Both Boeing and SpaceX are making good progress on this front, and I would recommend keeping an eye on their efforts. Over the next twelve months, I would watch developments relative to Congressional funding for commercial crew in both FY 2011 and FY 2012.”
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has become a key hub for satellite communications in the Middle East. EIAST, through its DubaiSat program, is bringing the benefits of satellite technology throughout the UAE. Its DubaiSat-1 satellite is a small, remote sensing satellite. It will take images of the face of the earth that will be transmitted to their ground station team who will analyze the images to produce reports that will support various sectors such as urban and rural planning. Ahmed Al Mansoori, director general, EIAST told Via Satellite last year that EIAST was also hoping to launch a DubaiSat-2 satellite in 2012, and that it was already thinking about a DubaiSat-3 satellite.
Bigelow notes that the two organizations met in the United States in 2008 and got together two additional times, once at the Global Space Technology Forum in Abu Dhabi and once last summer at the Farnborough Air Show. “Over the course of our discussions it became quite clear that our company and the EIAST shared much in common. We both have a strong belief in the peaceful commercial development of space and recognize the significant economic and scientific potential that robust access to microgravity may provide,” he says.
In terms of what Bigelow Aerospace will bring to this partnership, he adds, “Bigelow Aerospace will provide a turn-key opportunity for Dubai and the UAE to enjoy its own human spaceflight program. We have developed an innovative and affordable expandable habitat technology that will form the backbone of our private sector orbital space complex. Additionally, our company has been working diligently with several launch and capsule providers, including Boeing and SpaceX, to ensure that we can transport Emiratis to and from our station in a safe and affordable fashion. Bottom-line, through Bigelow Aerospace, the UAE will have the opportunity to develop their own astronaut corps, which will be able to travel to and take advantage of the capabilties of our next-generation space station.”
Human spaceflight has been dominated by Russia and the United States, but Bigelow believes as more countries develop a space capability, things are on the cusp of change. “We at Bigelow Aerospace believe there is a great need and value in ensuring that the benefits of human spaceflight can be enjoyed by the entire world, not just a handful of wealthy nations. Human spaceflight carries with it unique advantages and can fundamentally change the way a nation and its people are perceived,” he says. “Human spaceflight can also help a country attract high-technology investments while retaining educated youth and inspiring more students to focus on engineering and the sciences. We also believe that there may be some significant economic opportunities in the biotechnology/pharmaceutical sector, which is just one industrial field among many that will be impacted by the robust microgravity research, development and manufacturing capabilities that our orbital complex will provide.”
There are a number of technology challenges to make affordable human spaceflight a reality. In terms of what these are, Bigelow says, “At first, the greatest technical challenge we faced was developing and validating our fundamental technology, expandable space habitats. Although NASA had come up with the general idea, there was very little engineering that was actually done and no functional prototypes of an expandable habitat had ever been built, much less launched into orbit. Bigelow Aerospace successfully addressed this challenge with the launch of Genesis I and II, which demonstrated the great potential of expandable systems and validated our own designs. Now, the greatest challenge we face is in the area of crew transportation. Specifically, we need a safe and affordable means of transporting people to and from orbit. Due to our concern over the current lack of this capability, Bigelow Aerospace has been engaging with companies such as Boeing, SpaceX, and others to ensure that our crew transportation needs are met.“
Bigelow believes that companies such as Bigelow Aerospace and Virgin Galactic are changing the dynamics here. “50 years ago, space launch was expensive because it was a new and unknown activity. Today, there is no good reason for space operations to be so expensive. Companies such as ourselves and Virgin Galactic are demonstrating that the costs of space launch and hardware can be dramatically reduced, without sacrificing safety or capability, by applying smart business practices in combination with some new technologies. SpaceShipOne, Genesis I and II, Falcon 9, and the Dragon capsule are all direct evidence that space can and should be affordable,” he says.