This Expandable Structure Could Become the Future of Living in Space

A Nevada real estate magnate has poured $290 million into a wild dream of being a landlord in outer space. His first tenant: NASA

A mini-module, called a BEAM, is slated to be attached to the International Space Station in late May. There, it will undergo testing. (Dan Winters)
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Robert Bigelow is rocked back in a sleek office chair. He’s in a dark room with a double-high ceiling, his face illuminated by the glow from two walls of video monitors, each wall three screens wide and three screens tall. This whisper-quiet space is Bigelow’s mission control. The real deal. Four of the nine screens on the front wall are tracking his first two spacecraft as they orbit Earth—each more than 300 miles high, each moving 4.7 miles a second, a brisk 16,990 miles an hour. Those two spacecraft are unlike anything launched before they went into orbit a decade ago—or since.

To go with his mission control, Bigelow has a network of ground tracking stations. He’s got an immaculate factory with room for three production lines, ready to crank out spacecraft.

Bigelow has a mane of swooping silver hair, a face well-worn by seven decades of living in the Nevada desert, and a quietly nurtured obsession with space. Bigelow has hundreds of millions of dollars to spend, and he’s got technology that’s so proprietary his staff keeps active sections of the factory curtained off so visitors don’t walk off with any secrets.

And as of Friday, April 8, Bigelow has a first-of-its-kind spacecraft in orbit, ready to be bolted into place on the International Space Station.

Robert Bigelow is ready for you to live in space.

He’s even got a rack rate: Want one-third of a Bigelow space station for a month? $30 million, a million bucks a day. If you want more than a month, if you want the whole module, he can give you a better deal. In fact, Bigelow lacks just one thing. “Right now,” he says, “we have no customers. None. And that’s very frustrating.”

Bigelow is a step ahead of much higher-profile space entrepreneurs, a step ahead of Elon Musk and SpaceX, of Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin, of Boeing and even a step ahead of NASA. He’s ready to create space destinations—laboratory? observatory? factory? transit hub? resort? What he lacks is a good way for people to get to those destinations. So he’s waiting. “I do have patience,” he says impatiently. “I can exercise substantial patience when I need to.”

There’s a lot of talk about how Musk or Bezos will soon revolutionize space, but two things are true: They’re just working on the transportation part, and their technology isn’t going to fundamentally change the way we go to space. It will just change who we pay for the ride, how much it costs, and—Bigelow is sure hoping—who can afford to go for a ride. Bigelow is a better bet to trigger a much more fundamental revolution—changing how we live and work in space, who can afford to set up an outpost, what there is room to do.

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Bigelow knew he wanted to go into the space exploration business by the time he was 12 years old. Although he has no formal scientific training, in the last decade he has been awarded about ten patents related to aerospace technology. (Dan Winters)

Bigelow is a surprising character to shake up the half-century-old world of space travel. He’s not an engineer or a scientist. He was born in Las Vegas in 1944, around the time the city was opening its first casinos, and he’s lived there ever since. He’s got a sinewy self-sufficiency that carries an air of the frontier. He seems more likely to be introduced as a sheriff in rural Nevada than an aerospace innovator.

As a young man, Bigelow began building a real estate empire focused on short-term lodging for the waves of people moving west. He founded a low-priced extended-stay motel chain called Budget Suites of America, and he owns thousands of apartment units across Nevada, Arizona and Texas. His real estate business is still active, though he sold 4,500 units in 2005, 2006 and 2007, cashing out of a huge slice of his portfolio just before the crash, which hit Nevada particularly hard.

Why’d he get out right then?

There is the hint of a smile. “People were going berserk trying to throw money at you and buy your properties. It tore me up—I just couldn’t bear the distraught expressions on their faces. I sold out of the goodness of my heart.”

Bigelow likes to be immersed in the details of his business. Off the top of his head, he knows the average time people live in his 7,158 remaining apartment units: “One year and three months.” The buildings, the facilities belong to Bigelow. The customers come and go.

Around 1999, Bigelow read a magazine article about the TransHab, a soft-sided spacecraft that had been defunded by Congress, apparently for a combination of budgetary and political reasons. Bigelow had been looking for a way into the space business. He tracked down the people at NASA who had worked on TransHab and started to figure out how he could license the technology. “I thought, my God, this is an incredible idea,” he recalls. “All we have now are metal cans that are no larger than the rockets they were launched in. That is so antiquated by comparison.”

At the moment he saw the technology, he also saw the business: an extension of the one he was already in. Here were spacecraft inexpensive enough but also robust enough to open a whole new vista: room for lease, in space. “What I understand,” he says, “is the marketing of volume and time.”

Bigelow is convinced that soft-sided spacecraft will play as important a role in commercializing space as rockets themselves. In the history of space travel, only a dozen nonprofessional astronauts have been to space, most rich businesspeople looking for a one-of-a-kind experience. Bigelow Aerospace’s modules could finally make living and working in space so affordable that countries and companies would start sending up ordinary staff with a few weeks of training. The company is even planning to provide its own professional support-staff astronauts.

Bigelow Aerospace GIF
(Courtesy of Bigelow Aerospace)

These days, Bigelow spends 95 percent of his time on Bigelow Aerospace. He has 140 employees there. “I’m lucky,” he says, “that the real estate business has been able to supply the money that the aerospace company requires.”

As pragmatic as he is, a streak of eccentricity runs through Bigelow’s story. For years, he quietly funded research into extraterrestrial experiences and other kinds of psychic phenomena. Today, he hands out Bigelow Aerospace coasters with the Bigelow Aerospace logo on them—a rocket substituting for the “i”—and much larger, the artful image of a classic extraterrestrial, the wide, lidless eyes, the noseless face, the perfectly round head. That alien logo also appears on the side of the security vehicles at Bigelow Aerospace and on the outside of some of the factory buildings. Bigelow calls it his “mascot.”

It isn’t quite serious and it isn’t quite a joke, either. Bigelow genuinely believes in extraterrestrial visitors. In a story he has told many times, his maternal grandparents had an encounter in the Nevada desert with a fast-moving, oval-shaped, glowing red object that forced them off the road. From 1995 to 2004, Bigelow funded something called the National Institute for Discovery Science, employing researchers to study a range of unexplained phenomena, including UFOs. “I look at the extraterrestrial subject as phenomenally interesting,” he says, volunteering nothing more. Does he know something about extraterrestrials that typical people don’t? “I’ve spent a lot of money doing extensive research. I’ve spent a lot of time doing extensive research. I hope I have information the average person does not possess.”

Does the federal government know what he knows? “Absolutely.”

Why doesn’t he talk more expansively about extraterrestrials? “Because I don’t have an agenda to publish this information, to expose it. And I have information that people provided to me in confidence, and that has to be respected."

Still, compared with his serious efforts to build space outposts, those interests seem like the avocations of a man with enough money to give his curiosity a little running room. Bigelow might well have been a billionaire—until he spent $290 million developing the space modules. He launched the first two, paying the Russians to put them into orbit aboard intercontinental ballistic missiles that may have once been aimed at the United States, and built a factory to be ready to make modules to meet demand.

“He didn’t talk too much about the extraterrestrials,” says William Schneider, an engineer who started working at NASA in 1962 and who led development of expandable space modules inside NASA. After he retired in 2000 to teach at Texas A&M, Schneider helped Bigelow develop the first flight modules, including the two that are still in orbit. Schneider is impressed with Bigelow’s focus. “He zeroed in on getting the engineering done—he was absolutely serious about that.”

Schneider hasn’t worked with Bigelow for years, but he’s convinced expandable space modules will become a key element of space life. “It’s the coming of the future. And Bigelow is the one gutsy enough to get on it, to put money on it and make it go.”

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In the earliest days of the space program, long before TransHab came along, NASA launched two inflatable satellites, Echo 1 and 2, which brilliantly illustrated the virtues of what were then called inflatable spacecraft. At liftoff, the Echo satellites fit into a pod little bigger than a modern recycling bin. In orbit, they blossomed into sparkling spherical satellites 100 and 135 feet across, each wider than two city buses and easily visible from the ground. Small weight, small space on launch, big volume in orbit.

But the Echo satellites were made of Mylar, which has all the durability of a birthday party balloon. They lasted years in orbit, but they were reflective satellites—they didn’t need to hold pressure and temperature to protect equipment and people. In the 1960s, fabrics as thin as canvas but as tough as steel were a decade or two away. NASA, and the Soviet Union, focused engineering and imagination on hard-sided spacecraft, and “inflatables” were left on the shelf with other not-quite-practical ideas.

Fifty years into the era of space travel, we have an image of space vehicles: Sleek. Crisp. Engineered. Even the International Space Station has a gangly geometry to it. You could draw it with a ruler.

So Bigelow Aerospace’s soft-sided spacecraft—known as the B330—takes some getting used to. The exterior surface looks a little marshmallowy. Photos from orbit of Bigelow’s first two spacecraft, Genesis I and II, show exteriors that look like rumpled white quilts. In the artist renderings and factory models of the B330, there’s not an exterior edge anywhere—it’s all curves and gleaming white fabric, with the look and feel of sailcloth.

Even NASA refers to the kind of spacecraft Bigelow is developing as “soft-sided” or as “soft goods.” In fact, nothing could be more misleading. The spacecraft Bigelow Aerospace is engineering are pillowy the way a fully inflated football is pillowy. They are soft the way the tires on a 450-ton 747 gliding onto a runway at 180 miles an hour are soft. Says Glenn Miller, the principal investigator for Bigelow’s technology at NASA, “It’s ‘inflatable,’ but it’s not like a kid’s bouncy castle.”

“If you were to float into one of these modules in orbit and rap on the interior with your knuckles, it would feel like you were rapping on the inside of a fiberglass boat hull,” says George Zamka, a former Marine combat pilot who flew space shuttle Discovery in 2007 and commanded space shuttle Endeavor in 2010. He worked for Bigelow for 14 months, developing training and procedures for the people who might ultimately staff Bigelow space modules. If the Bigelow space modules don’t look like what we think of as “space-age” habitats and vehicles, says Zamka, “it’s just because it’s not what we’re used to seeing.”

An artist’s rendering of three interlinked B330s. Bigelow envisions joining these expandable modules together to create expansive space stations where people can live and work. (Dan Winters)
Bigelow wants to see his modules used to travel through space and then converted into habitats. This rendering shows a base created from B330 modules lowered to the surface of Mars. (Dan Winters)
A detailed mock-up of a base on the Moon (Dan Winters)
A 12-foot slab of aluminum is carved into a bulkhead for a B330. (Dan Winters)
A completed bulkhead. Each B330 has 330 cubic meters of living space. (Dan Winters)
The core of the never-launched Genesis III. “It was a backup,” says Bigelow. “I wasn’t expecting success with Genesis I and II.” (Dan Winters)

For launch, a B330 can be compacted to ride on an Atlas rocket. How spacious is it? It took 41 shuttle launches to put into orbit the hardware for the International Space Station. The station has 900 cubic meters of interior space. Each B330 has a habitable volume of 330 cubic meters. In other words: Launch three, fully assembled, aboard inexpensive Atlas rockets, and you’ve got more working and living space than aboard the $100 billion station, which took a decade and 159 spacewalks to construct. That’s the prospect that captivated Bigelow.

The holdup, for now, is finding rockets to launch paying passengers into space reliably and inexpensively. Except for the Russian Soyuz—which is dependable, but expensive, inconvenient and mostly booked—there are no rockets available to put people into orbit. The shuttles are in museums, NASA hasn’t successfully replaced them, and SpaceX and Boeing have yet to launch astronauts on their new rockets. Is there any point building destinations if there is no way to get to them?

“At this point,” he says, “Bigelow Aerospace is close to philanthropy.” When he started the company, he was 55. The way things look now, SpaceX may not have routine crew transportation available until he’s 75. Bigelow has brought onboard his granddaughter, Blair, a freshly graduated MBA from Southern Methodist University, to learn the business. “She’s my retirement plan,” he says.

Bigelow’s impatience is visible in the sprawling 365,000-square-foot factory space of Bigelow Aerospace in North Las Vegas. Here’s a robotic metal fabricating machine methodically cutting a space-rated bulkhead for a B330 module out of a disk of aluminum 12 feet across. Why is Bigelow making expensive, highly engineered components for a space habitat no one will need until at least 2018? Practice.

“We’re going to make all these parts several times, so we know how to do it,” says Bigelow. They make parts, they test them, they break them, they make more parts.

“When someone wants a B330,” he says, “we will have made them. We’ll know what we’re doing.”

The materials used to make the spacecraft hulls are high-tech, and the engineers at Bigelow Aerospace have spent a decade fine-tuning how to layer them to provide shape and structural firmness, and protection from micrometeorites and radiation, while they remain workable. The company has never released even a schematic diagram showing a cutaway of the layers in the fabric. “Proprietary,” says Bigelow. “We know more about this material, these techniques than anyone in the world,” he says. He’s not giving those hard-won insights away.

Some of the layers of fabric—there are about 20 of various materials, he says—have to be stitched together by hand. And what about the packing? How do you fold all that high-tech fabric so it fits in a rocket and then unpacks into a fully ready space station when you get in orbit?

“I’m not going to talk about the folding,” says Bigelow. “Proprietary.” He’s got the expression of a man who has tried to figure out how to roll up his high-tech tent and get it in the stuff-sack, unsuccessfully, many times.

“We’ve been working on the folding since 1999.”

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When NASA first developed the Trans­Hab, it was tackling a very specific problem. “We were asked to develop something that could go to Mars,” says Schneider. The requirement was 600 cubic meters of space, enough for six people and their supplies. The size was only part of the issue. Whatever you send into space has to be strong enough to endure the incredible forces of launch. That means giving walls a thickness and stiffness that add a huge amount of weight. “To make something that big out of aluminum, it gets so heavy, you need a whole other vehicle to launch it,” says Schneider.

Schneider says it took his team of ten people about six weeks to come up with the expandable concept: An interior core, like a horizontal elevator shaft made of aluminum trusses, would contain all the spacecraft’s vital electronics and systems, and an inflatable exterior shell would expand on orbit. The group’s first testing at the Johnson Space Center showed that, even with the materials available 16 years ago, their layered fabric was more resistant to micrometeorite punctures than the aluminum skin of the current space station modules.

In the decade and a half since Bigelow Aerospace licensed the technology from NASA, its engineers have been awarded more than a dozen patents for their own development work. NASA is now paying Bigelow $17.8 million for a custom-designed mini-module called BEAM (Bigelow Expandable Activity Module) and launching it to the International Space Station on a SpaceX Dragon rocket. One of the big reasons NASA is docking this module to the space station is to find out exactly how durable it turns out to be in space—in terms of micrometeorites, but also in terms of radiation, temperature and pressure.

BEAM is about one-twentieth the size of a B330—its interior volume is about twice that of a Honda minivan. It will fly to space almost completely bare on the interior—no windows, no avionics, no electrical or life support systems, no pre-installed lights and no temperature control, just some air ducts, foot restraints and the insulation provided by BEAM’s six-inch-thick layered hull.

NASA is very careful about flight hardware that will be used by people. For now, its scientists just want to see how the main structure performs under real spaceflight conditions. BEAM will be the only working module attached to the station in 15 years to be kept sealed—not to actually be used, just tested. “If something happens,” says Rajib Dasgupta, NASA’s BEAM project manager, “if there’s a catastrophic leak, those two air circulation valves close automatically. And we could jettison it immediately.”

Astronauts are set to visit the interior of BEAM to check sensors and download data twice every six months. They might, in fact, find BEAM to be an appealing, quiet hideaway spot—free of the noisy fans and the always-on video cameras in the rest of the station. And that would be fine, says Dasgupta, but it wouldn’t be encouraged. “It’s a temporary habitat,” he says. “A demonstration habitat. It doesn’t have any circulating fans, it doesn’t have any fire protection.”

According to Jason Crusan, the director of advanced exploration systems for NASA, “Our entire effort with BEAM is to bring our level of knowledge up on soft-sided structures as close to parity as possible on a single flight.”

Already, BEAM has presented unexpected complexity. Space is the land of pure Newtonian mechanics and BEAM is being launched folded to one-quarter its flight volume. When air pressure expands it to full size, it will push against the International Space Station, potentially putting all that load on the docking port connection. “When we analyzed the rate at which the gas would come out of the tanks,” says Dasgupta,  “it was imparting a lot of load to the space station.” Now, BEAM will be inflated more slowly and the module will be outfitted with shock absorbers.

For Bigelow, BEAM could be regarded as a step backward. The expandable space modules he launched a decade ago—the Genesis I and II—weren’t designed for human use, but they were autonomous, with solar cells, and filled with avionics and equipment. Comparatively, BEAM is an empty shell—after a decade of work and waiting.

Except for two things. Bigelow says his engineers have reworked and improved the layering. The BEAM hull has layers of Kevlar, the fabric strong enough to stop bullets, and Vectran, another artificial fabric, which is two times as strong as Kevlar. Vectran was used for the airbags that cushioned Mars rovers when they landed on the Martian surface. BEAM’s hull is six inches thick; the shell for the B330 modules is 18 inches thick.

The second thing that is different now is NASA. If you’re aiming to provide orbiting Moon stations, if you envision providing a soft-sided, roomy spaceship for the trip to Mars, NASA is going to have to be very comfortable with your competence and rigor. Robert Bigelow has no trouble being blunt—he thinks the nation’s space program is adrift. “It’s at a crossroads,” Bigelow says. “It needs to acquire a strong direction.” But asked about BEAM, he is nothing but grateful. “We got the opportunity to work with NASA on a spacecraft,” says Bigelow. “We made a lot of friends, we worked with people we have come to highly respect. And we hope to be working with them on other programs.

“If things work out,” he adds, “we’re going to be the landlord on a lot of future systems. The point for us is to allow NASA to get comfortable with it.”

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Bigelow is hoping that expandable space modules prove to be a turning point—liberating people from what has for half a century been a frankly cramped, tunnel-like space-travel experience.

There is a perfect if slightly inverted comparison. A hundred years ago, steel girders permitted the construction of spacious skyscrapers. That’s what Bigelow thinks expandable spacecraft will do for extraterrestrial landscapes—create structures that make it routine to live and work outside Earth’s atmosphere. He wants us to finally stop camping in space and really move there. He has a very clear plan in mind. He’s not planning to sell B330s. “We want to lease them,” he says. “It’s just like if you build an office building.” He may launch them in linked units of two or three, running them like an office park. The key, he says, “is, we don’t want you to have to write a big check.”

In some ways, he imagines B330s being run like sophisticated research vessels. He’ll provide the platform and also an onboard crew to operate the space station; you’ll lease space to do whatever work you want to do.

Beyond NASA and the corporate world, Bigelow has his eye on the literally dozens of countries that would like some kind of presence in space, but don’t have rockets or the money to create spacecraft. Seventy nations claim to have a space program, though “most of those have never flown anybody,” says Bigelow. But at $1 million a day, almost any country could have a space presence.

And Bigelow has adopted the original goal of Schneider’s TransHab development at NASA: He wants the B330, or its successors, to be used for transportation to the Moon and to Mars. Once there, he wants them to be immediately repurposed as initial habitats. “You get the modules into low-Earth orbit,” says Bigelow, “and then you can assemble metal frameworks around them. You attach propulsion tugs to the metal frameworks, and you can send them to the Moon or to Mars as if they were rockets.”

Getting the B330s safely onto the surface will require retro rockets and internal floors. But none of that requires technology, or even assembly techniques, that haven’t already been developed.

Inside the Bigelow Aerospace buildings, for instance, the models of Moon modules have tubes draped across them. “Those tubes are filled with regolith,” says Bigelow. Regolith is simply the sand on the surface of the Moon. He envisions astronauts filling the empty tubes with regolith, protecting the spacecraft like low-tech Moon sandbags. “They are a great insulator, and also provide radiation shielding,” he adds. He has a patent on the idea.

All in all, the man who wants to be the first space landlord is frustrated but not discouraged. “I’m a businessman,” he says. “The future of space is going to be commerce. It has to be. Like everything else in the world, if space is going to be sustainable, it has to be commercially viable.”

The success of people like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, he says, is the key. Space travel is waiting for the equivalent of its Model T Ford—or its minivan. “Then space can really be the kind of thing that writers have imagined for decades and decades, where we have thousands of people out there.” All paying rent to Robert Bigelow.

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