×

The $290 million 'space for rent' gets its NASA moment

It's been quite a week for three Americans who have put their money where their dreams are.

Last weekend, Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin launched and recovered a recycled rocket for the third time.

Friday, Elon Musk's SpaceX is set to return to the International Space Station for the first time since one of his Falcon 9 rockets blew up during launch last June.

On that rocket will be a small expandable space "apartment," which Las Vegas developer Robert Bigelow has created in a venture that has cost him $290 million so far. "I'm prepared to spend another quarter of a billion dollars," Bigelow told CNBC.

For Bigelow to succeed, Musk must first.

Robert Bigelow, founder of Bigelow Aerospace at Kennedy Space Station in Cape Canaveral, Fla.
Jodi Gralnick | CNBC
Robert Bigelow, founder of Bigelow Aerospace at Kennedy Space Station in Cape Canaveral, Fla.

A successful launch would be a big boost in more ways than one for SpaceX. The company redesigned its rocket after last year's disaster, and while the new Falcon 9 has had two successful satellite launches, Friday's liftoff will not only be its first trip to the space station, it will also be the first time the rocket carries a Dragon space capsule.

After the launch, SpaceX will again attempt to successfully land the first-stage booster on a floating barge.

Assuming all goes well, SpaceX wants to pick up the pace of launches. "The time between missions will get shorter and shorter," said Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX vice president of flight reliability. He predicts launches every other week "by the end of this year."

The new rocket will be fully loaded, delivering "an amazing bonanza for the biological sciences" to the space station, said NASA's Kirt Costello. Astronauts will be busy handling things like the first-ever space experiments from Eli Lilly.

The pharmaceutical giant wants, among other things, to study muscle degeneration on mice in space — research that could someday lead to treatments for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease, and multiple sclerosis. Astronauts will also receive seeds for growing vegetables in a NASA experiment on gravity-free gardening, including a version of Chinese cabbage that may grow well in space and tastes pretty good.

But one experiment towers over all of them like a 3,100-pound inflatable gorilla — the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM. It will be packed like a small space "tent" into the trunk of the Dragon capsule.

Once the Dragon reaches the space station, the BEAM will be attached to a port and filled with air, expanding to the size of a large closet. Then, at least four times a year for the next two years, astronauts will enter the BEAM in their regular clothes — no spacesuits needed — and check its systems.

"We're very excited," Bigelow said this week at the Kennedy Space Center.

It's been a long road to this point.

Expandable habitats are based on technology NASA abandoned in the late '90s. Bigelow picked up that technology and spent a fortune reworking it, only to sell it back to NASA at a steep discount — $17.8 million.

The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) is displayed in Las Vegas in this Jan. 16, 2013, picture provided by NASA.
Bill Ingalls | Reuters
The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) is displayed in Las Vegas in this Jan. 16, 2013, picture provided by NASA.

Ten years ago, Bigelow funded and launched two unmanned prototypes of the space habitats aboard Russian rockets to prove such structures could withstand the stresses of launch and space. Those two crafts, Genesis I and II, are still up there, and Bigelow learned a lot from them — all of which, he applied to the BEAM.

"The shape of this spacecraft is very different," Bigelow said of the newer craft. "We've never built this shape before."

This is the first time NASA will expand a structure in space. The actual expansion probably won't happen until later in May, after the astronauts take a break from the plethora of experiments coming their way.

Once the process starts, it will probably take a day or two to expand the BEAM from its compressed size of about 6-feet long with a nearly 8-foot diameter to 12-feet long with a diameter of 10½ feet.

Close attention will be paid to how the seals hold. As for the soft expandable surface, Bigelow said it would never pop like a balloon, adding that it's made of a material similar to Kevlar. "You could hit it 50 times and it would still maintain its shape," he said.

Once the BEAM deploys and is in use for a few months, Bigelow hopes to persuade NASA to let him start using the habitat for commercial purposes. "We have a couple of countries, we have a couple of corporations, that are knocking on our door as we speak, wanting to do commercial kinds of activities on board BEAM," he said.

Those opportunities include radiation testing of a component by Orbit Tech, a Japanese company that earlier sent sake ingredients into space and has "a menu of six or eight potential things that they would like to do," Bigelow said.

Governments asking about opportunities include the United Arab Emirates. "The UAE would like to do a memorial to its soldiers that have died fighting ISIS," Bigelow said. "They would like to fly photographs of those people that have lost their lives as a memorial."

If NASA eventually allows him to send these objects to the BEAM on future launches, Bigelow may not even charge for the service. "We may want to facilitate this, to start getting the energy going," he said. (Energy Bigelow would like to put toward his real goal of creating much larger and self-sustaining expandable habitat that link together like a chain.)

The planned Bigelow B330 will be 20 times larger than the BEAM, and the company would like to have two of them launched by 2020. Bigelow said he'd launch sooner, but he's been "held hostage" by the lack of launch services. Currently only the Atlas V rocket could carry a B330 into space, but he believes more rocket services should come into the market by 2018.

Once that happens, Bigelow wants to lease out portions of the B330s to companies or friendly governments. He would also sell naming rights and sponsorship opportunities. "We could be positive cash flow after 2020 if we have two 330s ready to deploy and we've deployed them," he said.

In other words, two decades after starting his company, Bigelow might start making money. But it all starts Friday with one small foldable living area packed into the trunk of a space capsule.

"Let's rock and roll and make it happen," he said.