The Five-Billion-Star Hotel

Need to get away from it all? Popular Science presents an exclusive tour of CSS Skywalker, an orbital resort that's a lot closer to reality than you might think
Bigelow Aerospace's unprepossessingly corporate identity camouflages the bold undertakings within (left). The elusive Robert Bigelow pursues his childhood vision with unmistakably grown-up determination (right). John B. Carnett

On the Las Vegas Strip, home of the biggest and most extravagant hotels in the world, shell-shocked tourists file past one stunningly ostentatious display after another. In the desert city, water says wealth like nothing else, and there’s a lake of it in front of the Bellagio, with fountains blasting 240 feet in the air in time to Broadway show tunes. Just up the street, the Mirage demonstrates that it has money to burn with a fiery volcano erupting from the top of a 119,000-gallon waterfall.

Tucked away on the service roads behind the Strip, the humble Budget Suites of America hotels are, in contrast, nearly invisible to tourists. Catering not to revelers but to the hordes of migrants looking for quick work in America’s tourism epicenter, Budget Suites eschews flashy displays of any sort, flaunting instead affordable weekly rates and the homely comforts of laundry rooms and kitchenettes.

Still, when it comes to grand ambition, the impresarios of the Strip are mere pikers next to Budget Suites owner Robert Bigelow. For his next hotel enterprise, Bigelow is looking beyond the bright lights of Las Vegas–beyond Earth’s atmosphere, in fact. He is actively engaged in an effort to build the planet’s first orbiting space hotel. Bargain-basement room rate: $1 million a night. For its water show, this hotel will have all of Earth’s blue oceans flying past its windows at 17,500 miles an hour. Guests on board the 330-cubic-meter station (about the size of a three-bedroom house) will learn weightless acrobatics, marvel at the ever-changing face of the home planet, and, for half of every
90-minute orbit, gaze deep into a galaxy ablaze with stars.

The public has seen this vision for decades–another hopeless dreamer’s space fantasy. But here there’s a difference: Bigelow is betting $500 million of his personal fortune that he can make it come true. He has hired veteran space-travel engineers to perfect the technology, he has produced nearly launch-ready hardware for testing, and he’s floating a $50-million prize to entice other companies to create a safe, reliable orbital space vehicle to transport guests to the front door–or rather, the airlock. Even five years ago, this plot would have seemed utterly implausible. But with Burt Rutan’s recent Ansari X Prize triumph–his company, Scaled Composites, won a $10-million competition for the successful, repeated launch of a manned suborbital space vehicle–and the subsequent creation of Virgin Galactic to capitalize on Rutan’s technology for tourist spaceflights, Bigelow’s project provides an intriguing new twist in the development of a commercial spaceflight industry.

Robert Bigelow is a trim 60 years old with a full head of salt-and-pepper hair and a matching mustache. He shepherds visitors through his 50-acre, three-building, 56-employee R&D facility, Bigelow Aerospace, on the outskirts of Las Vegas with the quiet confidence of a man who knows exactly what he is doing. “It’s a gamble,” he says of his project, the world’s first private space station. “It’s a huge gamble.” He smiles faintly as he says it, as though he enjoys the sheer outrageousness of his own project. Then, too, he’s no stranger to high-stakes gambling; he was raised in Las Vegas, after all, surrounded by the city’s kitschy, instant-gratification, money-fixated culture.

Yet he’s also insatiably curious about spirituality and the nature of the universe, and he possesses an unearthly patience. Las Vegas may be an unlikely incubator for these qualities, but that’s exactly what it was for Bigelow as he grew up. In the 1950s, nuclear explosions at the nearby Nevada Test Site lit his street at night with artificial daylight–casting light on his mortality, as well. In later years, rumors circulated of a secret government program to study a crashed extraterrestrial spaceship and its occupants. And although he never saw anything himself, Bigelow knew people who swore that they had had unexplainable encounters with possible extraterrestrials; his own grandparents even had a UFO experience. He couldn’t guess what it all meant, but he developed a burning desire to find out. What was our place in the universe? Were we alone in it?

Bigelow was just 15 years old when he vowed to devote his life to helping establish a permanent human presence in space. It would take money, he knew–lots of it. And so he began to build a very practical foundation for his fantastic idea: He followed his father into real estate, studying that and banking at Arizona State University. After graduating in 1967, he launched his career first as a broker, and soon began buying small rental properties. His first construction project, in 1970, was a 40-unit apartment house. Throughout the 1970s and ’80s he built dozens of apartment buildings and motels in and around Las Vegas, and in 1988 he founded Budget Suites of America.

At about the same time, he began pouring millions of dollars into UFO and paranormal research, eventually creating his National Institute for Discovery Science (NIDS) in 1995. None of this activity was a secret, but he did keep mum about his ultimate goal, the driving motivation behind his expanding empire–telling no one until the time came to set the plan in motion. “I didn’t even tell my wife,” he says. “She never knew. Because it’s possible that that kind of dream would never happen.” The ideal moment arrived in 1999 when Bigelow, now sitting on a fortune, got wind of a NASA program for a radical new space station.

Like the hotels on the Strip, Bigelow Aerospace is wrapped in layers of illusion. Viewed from West Brooks Avenue in North Las Vegas, it resembles most other industrial complexes in the neighborhood, down to the beer distributor right across the street. Such similarity ends, however, as you drive past a reassuringly corporate Bigelow logo and through the gate. Overlooking the Strip 10 miles away, the small parking lot is
bounded by chain-link fencing wrapped with razor wire. As the beefy guards wearing desert fatigues and .45s check your ID, maybe you’ll notice their black shoulder patches, which feature a classically oval-eyed alien face outlined in silver and gold.

Bigelow–who generally shuns media attention and rarely grants interviews–kept his spacefaring efforts largely under wraps for five years after founding Bigelow Aerospace. But he began showing his work last fall, after announcing his
$50-million orbital-vehicle prize amid the positive press surrounding Rutan’s SpaceShipOne. The top-secret, Skunk Worksâ€style aura persists, and visitors are only slowly being admitted to Building B, the semipublic face of Bigelow Aerospace. Built last year, the windowless, 80,000-square-foot
facility houses full-scale mock-ups of Bigelow’s baby: the Nautilus space-station module. Two 45-foot-long, 22-foot-diameter modules, brilliant white and draped with the American flag, loom out of the darkness at the back of the building. A stairway invites visitors to climb on board to see for themselves what it might be like to live in the biggest space-station modules ever built. Their large volume is the result of an unusual design feature–they are inflatable.

Developed at NASA as part of a project called TransHab, inflatable space-station modules have some important advantages over their tin-can counterparts. They weigh significantly less, and they launch in a compressed state, with their fabric hulls wrapped tightly around their rigid cores like a roll of paper towels. This allows them to use less-powerful launch vehicles and makes for roomier space stations. After a rocket fires a Nautilus into space, explosive bolts will release the girdle securing the compressed hull, and then the station’s life support
system, housed in the core, will inflate the structure with breathable air, expanding it from 15 feet in diameter to 22 feet. Power comes from solar panels that unfold from the rigid bulkheads at each end of the module. Each bulkhead also houses an airlock and a docking adaptor. Astronauts arriving later enter a shirtsleeve environment in which they can go to work unpacking removable panels, equipment and supplies from the core to create three levels of living and working space. A docked rocket engine called a multi-directional propulsion bus (MDPB) will eventually allow the station–the first one is tentatively called CSS [Commercial Space Station] Skywalker–to maneuver within Earth’s orbit or even leave it, for, say, a trip to the moon.

This basic architecture was created by NASA senior engineer William Schneider, in an effort that began in 1997.
The design won numerous converts at NASA, with then-
administrator Daniel Goldin calling it a major breakthrough. For a while, it was seriously considered as an alternative to the International Space Station (ISS) Habitation Module under development at the time by Boeing. But TransHab was cancelled without explanation in 2000, before it could produce flight-ready hardware. Its demise is an example of what Bigelow sees as NASA’s monumental inefficiency. Here was a perfectly good program to develop a technology that was less expensive and tougher than conventional designs, but, as far as Bigelow could tell, it got axed for purely political reasons.

Bigelow thinks he can do better with a traditional business model. “I’ve put together many, many projects involving a lot of money and a lot of people,” he says, and unlike NASA, “I’m used to doing things pretty darn well on budget and pretty darn well on time.” Although he’s circumspect about just how he will spend his $500-million commitment, it is clear that he budgets carefully. His expenditures so far run only into the tens of millions, mostly for building the Bigelow Aerospace physical plant, for patents obtained from NASA, and for building and testing prototypes of space station modules. His biggest outlays, for building and launching the actual modules into space, have yet to be made. But here again, he plans to spend carefully, hiring rides on relatively low-cost commercial SpaceX and Russian Dneper launch vehicles, and sourcing off-the-shelf components from reasonably priced vendors whenever possible. It’s this careful approach to spending, honed on countless construction projects, that Bigelow feels sets him apart from NASA, which relies on high-priced defense contractors.

After TransHab was cancelled, Bigelow bought the exclusive development rights from NASA and entered into a Space Act Agreement with the agency to allow him to work with former TransHab engineers still employed there. And he tracked down Schneider, by then retired from NASA and teaching at Texas A&M University. Schneider was surprised when he got the call, but he agreed to see for himself what Bigelow was up to. The modules Bigelow has on display, though empty except for floors and structural elements, had their intended effect on Schneider. “And god,” he recalls now, “when I walked in here, boom! It was mind-boggling, because this is the vision that I really wanted. Here’s these things, all sitting there, and of course some of them are mock-ups, but the rest were inflatable, and I said, â€Man, he’s serious. He’s not playing around.’ ” These days Schneider and his former TransHab colleagues visit the plant every few weeks to provide guidance to Bigelow’s engineers. For Schneider, it’s a chance to follow through on some unfinished business. “It’s kind of like you want to see your child grow up to maturity,” he says, “not be stopped in its adolescence.”

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.”

Before [Columbia] was lost in 2003
and the remaining space shuttles grounded, Bigelow was in talks with the Russians to supply his stations with three-person Soyuz capsules. After the [Columbia] accident, though, Bigelow found himself in competition with NASA for rides on the Soyuz–a distinctly untenable position.

The success of the X Prize pointed the way toward a potential solution: Bigelow decided to launch his own competition. America’s Space Prize will award $50 million for the first privately funded spacecraft that can send five people into orbit and dock with a Bigelow Aerospace habitat. The deadline is January 10, 2010, the date Bigelow wants his hotel to open.

The prospects for orbital tourism look good. Already two tourists have paid $20 million each for weeklong vacations on the ISS. At $7.9 million, Bigelow’s tickets will be a relative bargain. At that price, says Eric Anderson, whose company, Space Adventures, brokered the $20-million flights, Bigelow could see 20 to 30 customers a year. But Bigelow says he’ll offer his station to any commercial enterprise that’s interested. He hopes to find a market among drug companies and other manufacturers who want to take advantage of the increased efficiencies afforded by microgravity, as well as researchers and Hollywood producers eager to shoot movies, TV shows and commercials in space.

Still, Bigelow says he stands a better-than-even chance of losing a big chunk of his fortune on this $500-million gamble. “But you know,” he says, “the faint of heart never won a fair maiden, never won wars.” Besides, “I think what we’re doing has some national value, win or lose.” That notion is a powerful motivation for Bigelow, says Gibbs,
his patent attorney: “He feels like the United States should be taking the lead in this and that we really need to get more private industry involved if we’re going to jump forward with any real spectacular moves.”

“Where’s the inspiration in America?” Bigelow asks. “If you asked 50 people or 500 people, â€What is America’s inspiration today?’ what would they say? To win the war in Iraq? That
doesn’t create a dream in some kid’s mind. An inspiration has to be something you carry with you 24/7.”