Bigelow Aerospace launches its prototype space module
BY STEPHEN CLARK
Posted: July 12, 2006
An inflatable module called Genesis 1 arrived in space after a successful launch Wednesday aboard a converted Russian ballistic missile. The project's backers hope the mission will be the first step in realizing a plan for a futuristic commercial space station that could be fully operational within the next decade.
The Dnepr rocket with Genesis 1 was fired out of its missile silo at 1453 GMT (10:53 a.m. EDT) from a launch base at Yasny near Russia's southern border.
The space launch was the first from Yasny, which has been undergoing preparations to host commercial Dnepr rocket launches along with the often-used Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Wednesday's mission was the sixth for the Dnepr rocket under the auspices of Kosmotras, the firm that markets the decommissioned missile for space launches.
The three-stage booster left the payload in a near-circular orbit averaging around 347 miles high with an inclination of about 64 degrees.
If all goes as planned, Genesis 1 will give Las Vegas-based Bigelow Aerospace a foothold in space to begin testing hardware in advance of a planned full-scale space station by 2015. Founded in 1999 by hotel tycoon and entrepreneur Robert Bigelow, the company aims to validate inflatable structures in space and build a private space station to host paying customers.
Bigelow himself is footing the bill for the project. He estimates he has already invested $75 million into the company through April 2006, and $500 million could be required before his plans come to fruition.
Less than 10 hours after launch, Bigelow confirmed the prototype spacecraft was in good health after ground controllers in Las Vegas received the first signals from Genesis 1. Officials then quickly confirmed the craft had inflated with pure nitrogen gas and deployed its solar panels on schedule.
Genesis 1 carries a group of 13 cameras mounted both inside and outside the module to observe the behavior of the craft throughout its lifetime, which is forecast to be between three-and-a-half and seven years. The exact life span of the spacecraft depends on its future health, the outcome of its testing, and orbital mechanics.
"This launch was the first step in an adventure that will take us all to the stars and beyond," said Mike Gold, corporate counsel for Bigelow Aerospace.
If engineers see good results from the first few months of Genesis 1 operations, Bigelow will give the go-ahead to launch a follow-on craft called Genesis 2 late this year. The new module will contain expanded life-support systems, various upgrades in avionics, and a new inflation tank design, Bigelow told Spaceflight Now.
Launched atop another Dnepr rocket, Genesis 2 will also usher in a new era in commercial spaceflight. Bigelow Aerospace is now taking online orders to fly personal photos and other small items aboard the module. Cameras positioned inside the spacecraft will be ready to take pictures of the floating objects after they are released upon reaching orbit. The images will be downlinked back to Earth.
Submitted photos will be reprinted by Bigelow Aerospace along with a short caption provided by the customer. Other objects riding inside Genesis 2 are to be sent to Bigelow prior to the launch for preparations and loading. Mass restrictions limit items to the size of a golf ball or smaller.
Each customer can purchase room for up to five items or pictures. Prices run around $295 per slot.
Another addition is a unique space bingo game that would bring the traditional pastime to the final frontier. Bigelow is also running a space advertising pilot program, in which companies can launch business cards, corporate logos, and other objects into space, beginning with this fall's Genesis 2.
The Genesis modules are one-third scale models of the larger components Bigelow hopes to use in building the space station. However, many key systems will be first tested on the two Genesis flights due to the current low experience base with inflatable spacecraft.
Assuming engineers are pleased with results from the two Genesis test missions, Bigelow will proceed with plans to introduce a new breed of expandable modules - spacecraft that are larger and more capable than the Genesis. Called Guardian, these prototypes will be approximately 45 percent scale mock-ups of the BA 330, the cornerstone of Bigelow's planned space station.
After several Guardian-class modules are tested in space through 2008 or 2009, Bigelow hopes to be ready to launch the first BA 330, which denotes the 330 cubic meters (11,654 cubic feet) of internal volume inside the inflated spacecraft. The volume is almost that of the current configuration of the international space station.
Launch plans for the Guardian demonstrators and the BA 330 modules are still unannounced, but SpaceX currently holds a contract with Bigelow for an undisclosed mission in late 2008 using the Falcon 9 rocket.
Between six and ten pathfinder modules are expected to be flown by 2010, and a fully functional craft could be able to host crews as early as 2012. By 2015, Bigelow hopes to have an operational space station in orbit.
Applications for such an outpost widely vary, but can include commercial laboratories for research and manufacturing. The idea of operating an orbital hotel using Bigelow-supplied space hardware is also not far-fetched.
The ambitious program draws upon years of research by NASA, who initially wanted to use a similar inflatable module design for a crew habitat on the international space station. When NASA cancelled plans for the so-called TransHab module, Bigelow picked up the concept and acquired the rights to pursue the design commercially.
Bigelow says a space station consisting of just two modules would require up to 16 medium- to heavy-lift rockets to haul people and cargo in the third year of operations. Those launchers would be comparable to the least powerful version of Lockheed Martin's Atlas 5 with no solid rocket boosters and the Falcon 9 booster currently being developed by SpaceX.
America's Space Prize, a competition partially funded by Bigelow, aims to select a potential private contractor to service inflatable space stations. The prize is a $50 million reward to the first group that successfully builds and flies a private spacecraft able to dock with Bigelow modules in orbit by 2010. The winner could be picked by Bigelow to ferry payloads and crews between Earth and space.