The real work at Bigelow Aerospace goes on in Building A, with its expansive shop floor. Here machinists and technicians turn out aluminum parts on state-of-the art computer-driven milling machines and assemble them into test modules. On a recent day, a welding torch flared in the darkness of a full-scale mock-up being converted into a vacuum chamber for testing the inflation of modules under reduced atmospheric pressure.
Bigelow patrols the shop floor, wearing his customary colorful shirt and spotless white sneakers. Even to many of his longtime employees he is known as Mr. Bigelow, yet he’s often
greeted with smiles and good-natured ribbing. He’s involved in every aspect of the operation, keeping a close eye on the work of the machinists and signing off on all of his engineers’ designs. He has to feel with his own hands the heft of each precision part, to hear the satisfying click of them fitting together.
His reluctance to deal in intangibles extends to other areas as well. He has never sent an e-mail. “E-mail,” he says, “is a very sloppy medium. It’s not pristine at all.” Instead he prefers phone calls or the physical contact of faxes and letters. Last summer, rather than endure abstract discussion in a meeting on whether to use the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, for vibration tests, he abruptly took the entire meeting to the airport and put the flabbergasted team on his private jet. They flew to Pasadena to evaluate the facility firsthand, had lunch, and flew back to North Las Vegas to continue the meeting.
And then there was the case of the clevis fittings. During one design meeting, engineers Edwin Lardizabal and Jay Ingham and project manager Brian Aiken found themselves arguing with Schneider and a visiting NASA engineer about the size of the fittings holding the restraint-layer straps. The restraint layer is perhaps the most crucial part of the three layers of fabric that make up the Nautilus’s hull. The hull’s innermost layer, a plastic film called the air bladder, keeps the internal atmosphere from escaping into space, but it’s up to the restraint layer to ensure that the air bladder keeps its shape and doesn’t burst. It consists of a web of interwoven straps made of high-strength fiber. The straps attach to the bulkheads at either end of the module by means of clevis fittings and rollers.
Lardizabal, Schneider and the others couldn’t agree on whether to keep the 1/8-inch diameter rollers they had already decided on, or up the size to 3/16 for added safety. Finally Bigelow had had enough. As Franklin E. Gibbs, Bigelow’s patent attorney, recalled later: “We’ve got a room full of engineers, and everybody is worried about figuring it to the nth degree, and Robert just says, â€Wait. Build it. Let’s see what it does.’ ” Bigelow called the manufacturing manager up from the shop floor and told him to get to work: “Build both of them. I want a dozen of these ready after lunch.” By the time the meeting reconvened, a dozen shiny rollers of each type awaited evaluation. The verdict? Go with the safer 3/16-inchers.
On this day, Bigelow checks up on Lardizabal and two of his assistants working in the assembly area of the shop floor, installing the straps in question. Lardizabal, a talkative Filipino who was laid off from Boeing after 9/11, grins at Bigelow’s approach: “It’s the boss!” Bigelow joins him beside an inflated quarter-scale module whose crisscrossing restraint-layer straps lie exposed like the musculature of a flayed horse. He watches intently as Lardizabal picks up a pair of loose straps dangling from their clevis fittings at one end of the module and lays them across the module’s side. This is how the outer layer of straps will go on now, he explains to Bigelow. A couple inches apart, instead of the previous, wider configuration.
It seems like a small detail, but the minutiae of how the straps of the restraint layer will fit together is critical. Especially since the straps must be woven through and around the aluminum frames of the windows. This presents a particular challenge on the third-scale test module that will be launched on a SpaceX rocket this November. On the third-scale module, there will be no room for the window, so the window installation procedure is one of the areas on which Lardizabal and his colleagues seek the advice of the former TransHab engineers.
The matter of how the MicroMeteoroid and Orbital Debris (MMOD) shield will fold for launch and then deploy in space is another. Composed of five layers of graphite-fiber composites separated by foam spacers, the MMOD is the outermost section of Nautilus’s hull. Schneider’s crew’s original TransHab design had more stopping power than did aluminum three inches thick. Ground-testing of Bigelow’s MMOD has shown that it can stop impacts by 5/8-inch-diameter aluminum pellets fired at it at 6.4 kilometers a second, several times as fast as a rifle bullet. No rigid spacecraft design can match this performance, and it’s one of the reasons Nautilus has an expected life span of at least 15 years. But getting the MMOD to fold properly for launch is a major engineering headache. “It’s challenging because it is such a robust and thick material,” Lardizabal says.
Lardizabal admits that he and his colleagues may not be able to overcome these and other formidable obstacles that will arise before Bigelow’s $500-million commitment runs out in 2015. He puts the project’s chances for success at 60 percent. “This will be the first time,” he explains. “That’s the problem. You can’t foresee everything. Just like when we rolled out the 747 the first time.” Schneider, though, has no doubt that Nautilus will be in orbit by 2010, as planned—in large part because Bigelow is in charge. He compares Bigelow with another wildly successful Las Vegas real-estate mogul who had aerospace interests: “Bob is like Howard Hughes reincarnated. He’s not just a financial person; he’s in the middle of everything that we do.”
It could be argued that Bigelow’s space station is on the way to becoming his own [Spruce Goose], the monumentally ambitious Hughes aircraft that could barely get airborne. But whereas the freewheeling Hughes inherited a fortune with which to make a bigger
fortune, Bigelow is a self-made man, and therein lies a key difference. Beginning with his first apartment house, Bigelow has developed a clear-headed and methodical approach to all his projects: Hire the best engineers and tradespeople, source the best materials, and stay on time and on budget. “They’re taking a very down-to-earth approach to what they’re doing in terms of building and testing,” Taber MacCallum says of Bigelow Aerospace. Starting in 1991, MacCallum lived for two years with seven other people in a sealed, self-
contained environment as part of the Biosphere 2 research project. He now heads Paragon Space Development, a NASA contractor. “They’re very much along the same philosophical lines as Burt Rutan and his SpaceShipOne,” he says, “and we all know how successful that’s been.” Bigelow’s approach, he adds, is aggressive, but “he’s very safety-
conscious, much like Rutan.”
Another convert to the Bigelow cause, John M. Logsdon, cites the company’s close relationship with NASA as a winning factor. “I have little doubt that the basic technology is likely to work,” says Logsdon, who directs George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute. “The issue is whether there’s a transportation system that can get people or things, or both, up there.”
This news is quite invigorating. I realize this is a first and as such, there will be evolution. I myself would like to eventually see larger structures capable of accommodating hundreds if not thousands. Never-the-less, this is a good start. I do expect enhancements and improvements in the near future.
$1 million per night is a bargain indeed compared to Richard Branson's $200k per flight. Does the $1 million price tag include costs of flight? And full board? Any other in room entertainment facilites besides a window? What is the difference between this room and the one priced at $7.9 million? I'm just doing the groundwork in case I have the 1 mill at hand to dish out for an out-of-the-world experience such as this!
Oh I could dream the dream in fact a big part of my life is going through a process that is the fun. The reality of the achievement is short lived. Live the dream.
Now this is a cool alternative for a holiday. If you can afford it that is. When we consider the green promotion for tourism and the natural wonders found across our globe, I must add this is a fabulous concept for an adventure, though the price tag is just a little out of my reach! Ok a lot out of my reach!
I provided this technology to NASA as a public service. They promptly appropriated it and sold it to Bigelow. Now Bigelow is selling it back. I am very glad to see it taking root and look forward to future football stadii in space.