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International Space Station program manager Bill Gerstenmaier holds a news conference Sept. 24 to discuss problems with the oxygen generation system and Expedition 10 launch preparations. (44min 06sec file)
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Bigelow's Gamble
PUBLISHED IN AVIATION WEEK & SPACE TECHNOLOGY
RE-PRINTED HERE WITH PERMISSION
Posted: September 27, 2004

It's a high-stakes game to develop commercial inflatable space modules while proposing a $50-million prize for a new piloted spacecraft to service them

BY CRAIG COVAULT/LAS VEGAS

The Bigelow Aerospace project to privately develop inflatable Earth-orbit space modules is beginning to integrate diverse U.S. and European technologies into subscale and full-scale inflatable test modules and subsystems at the company's heavily guarded facilities here.

 
Credit: Aviation Week photo by William G. Hartenstein
 
While much public attention is focused on the massive International Space Station (ISS), Bigelow has quietly become a mini-Skunk Works for the NASA Johnson Space Center (JSC).

Ongoing technical assistance to Bigelow from JSC is focused on helping the company spawn development of orbiting commercial inflatable modules by the end of the decade, with the possibility of JSC later using the Bigelow technology for inflatable modules on the Moon or Mars.

Inflatables are attractive because they offer large volume with enormous launch weight savings.

Bigelow Aerospace is also increasing the stakes that low-cost non-government transportation can be available to send astronaut crews to its inflatable space modules in Earth orbit by 2010.

Company founder and millionaire Robert T. Bigelow told Aviation Week & Space Technology that he will announce as early as this week a new $50-million space launch contest called America's Space Prize.

The objective is to spur development of a low-cost commercial manned orbital vehicle capable of launching 5-7 astronauts at a time to Bigelow inflatable modules by the end of the decade.

America's Space Prize will be patterned somewhat after the X Prize that will go to the first team to demonstrate back-to-back suborbital flights.

America's Space Prize, however, is to award five times more money than the $10-million X Prize. And if successful, the winner of America's Prize would have developed something different - the first commercial manned orbital spacecraft - which unlike the X Prize, could be used for something other than just a spectacular ride.

The new contest also presents challenges far greater than the X Prize by requiring development of a vehicle that could maneuver to dock at well over 100 mi. altitude and survive a 17,500-mph. reentry.

America's Prize will be set up so the winner can propose launch on an existing (even non-U.S.) booster, depending upon the entrant's spacecraft configuration.

Bigelow is committing $25 million to the prize, and more than one additional proprietary benefactor is in final discussion with Bigelow for the other half. Potential funding partners include NASA, as a follow-up to the prize-related recommendations by the Aldridge Commission on Exploration.

In addition to the $50 million, the America's Prize winner would also be guaranteed first rights on a contract from Bigelow for ongoing orbital servicing missions to its inflatable 45 X 22- ft. "Nautilus" modules - possibly docked together as a small space station.

With 330 cu. meters of volume, each Nautilus has 2.75 times the volume of individual ISS modules, Bigelow says.


Bigelow triple module metallic simulator shows two inflatables docked to central node with a third out of view behind docking interface. Units are used for outfitting studies and an educational program. Credit: Aviation Week photo by William G. Hartenstein
 
Initial Nautilus unmanned operations are possible by 2008 with the first manned flights to dock with the previously unmanned Nautilus possible by 2010, according to Bigelow. The Nautilus would require a Proton-class booster.

Preceding the first full-scale Nautilus will be two "Genesis" one-third scale inflation test modules to be launched in 2005 and 2006 - one on a SpaceX Falcon V and the other on a Russian "Dneper" commercial version of the SS-18 ballistic missile.

Following those missions will be two "Guardian" 45% scale inflatable module flights in 2007 carrying critical lifesupport system demonstration hardware.

A Dneper will also launch the Guardian flights and could be used for the first Genesis if the SpaceX Falcon V is not ready.

All four of these inflatable test spacecraft will be designed to last for several years in orbit. And Bigelow is offering free rides in them to any corporate or government research payload that would like to take advantage of flying in such a pressurized vehicle.

The first Genesis will be pressurized with nitrogen, but later units will use an oxygen/nitrogen mixture, says Jay Inghram, who runs the Bigelow integration team and also handles mechanical design. He was formerly with Raytheon.

Robert Bigelow says when he started the project in 1998 he decided he could afford to put $500 million of his own funds into the effort by 2015 to achieve launch of full-scale hardware by then.

He says, however, that developments at his North Las Vegas plant and at his nearly two dozen subcontractors have put him as much as five years ahead of schedule, with at least the chance of launching the first 20-25-ton Nautilus for unmanned tests by 2008 and placing a crew on board that first unit as early as 2010.

Inflatables like the Bigelow modules could also form the basis for manned lunar and eventually Martian habitats. Lockheed Martin has just contracted with Bigelow for inflatable module concepts that Lockheed Martin hopes to use in its response to major NASA studies on a return to manned lunar operations.

Bigelow's work follows NASA's mid- 1990s TransHab inflatable technology efforts now shifted to the company.

Bigelow has two licensing agreements with NASA. The first is an exclusive license for two patents related to the TransHab. The second is a license for radiation shielding technology that has both exclusive and non-exclusive components, says Mike Gold, Bigelow's general counsel. "By virtue of those agreements we are able to get very valuable ongoing assistance and advice from NASA," Bigelow says. "A lot of key NASA folks are in this plant on a regular basis, and they help us a lot."

Bigelow is pursuing markets for a variety of users including biotech and pharmaceutical company and university research, entertainment applications and government military and civil users. The flight of the NASA-developed bioreactor human tissue growth apparatus, spun off to the private sector, could also be a key medical research market, he says.

He is hoping to earn the trust of those markets by low cost and rapid turnaround, contrary to traditional NASA ISS and space shuttle operations and bureaucracy.

"Part of the challenge is to be technologically proficient with a product that is safe and reliable, user-friendly and economical - otherwise there is no point doing what we are doing," Robert Bigelow says. Although he made his fortune as a general contractor and founder of Budget Suites of America, contrary to media reports he says he is not pursuing "space hotels."

What he is doing, however, is looking at "leasing out" small space stations or habitats made of one or more Nautilus inflatable modules to different research communities or corporations.

To do that Bigelow, with NASA and subcontractor help, is pioneering the development of lightweight but extremely strong and long-lived inflatable "soft goods" to form modules made of proprietary advanced aerospace materials.

The Bigelow team is also developing how to fold and package those soft goods around the module's aluminum core, so once inflated in space, creases and folds and critical seals around windows and hatches do not leak. This is a major challenge on which there is little literature. The company is doing extensive testing to obtain such baseline data.

Other key developments include an external "restraint system," a large bag formed of high-strength interwoven fabric straps to keep the air bladder, of a laminate polymer, at the desired shape once inflated.

Covering the straps will be a five-layer micrometorite shield constructed in part of carbon-fiber composites, but using a less costly design than similar NASA shields. The module will have a total of seven layers with the interior inflated to 10 psi. compared with 14.7 psi. for the ISS and 12 psi. for the 1970s Skylab space station.

More than 50 ballistics tests at the University of Dayton Research Institute and the University of Denver Research Institute were devoted to firing particles of 0.25-58 in. toward the Bigelow shield at velocities from about 1.9-4.3 mi./sec.

"The tests showed we have a shield that performs comparably to NASA's, but at a fraction of the cost," says Brian Aiken, the overall Bigelow program manager. Aiken has extensive experience in satellite design, mostly on military spacecraft at TRW (now Northrop Grumman).

To protect against radiation, the inner walls will be covered with crew-deployed water blankets.

In addition to test and inflatable module technology visible throughout the 120,000 sq. ft. of floor space here, the facilities have large simulators and test articles including:

  • Triple module "metallic envelope" station: Three full-scale metallic modules simulating inflatables are joined by a central node for use in visualizing and outfitting attached inflatables. The company will also use it as part of a major Las Vegas area education program for schoolchildren - a Bigelow priority.
  • S-1A module: This full-scale metallic simulator is also used for outfitting tests, but will also be used for life-support systems tests. A clean room will be added adjacent to it next year.
  • Two Nautilus full-size inflatable bladders: One is inflated with a simulated airlock and one is being outfitted for inflation. There are also two full-scale woven restraint layers for the bladders.
  • A 50% scale inflated Nautilus. Used for underwater testing, this inflation test article has a full-scale diameter but halfscale length.
  • Genesis one-third scale: Appearing similar to the first subscale flight article, there are two of these 10 X 8-ft. inflated units.
  • A number of 25% inflatables for various test purposes.
Key tests of an advanced Genesis development flight article are about to get underway in Jet Propulsion Laboratory facilities in Pasadena, Calif., by mid-October. The JPL facilities are being used under the latest Space Act agreement with NASA.

The 2,500-lb. test article will be in its 10 X 4-ft. launch configuration for launch load and modal vibration tests. It will also undergo an altitude chamber depressurization test to see how the restraint system straps hold the bladder when gradually exposed to a vacuum as during launch. In flight it will carry enough makeup nitrogen for about three reinflations if necessary, Inghram says.

A successful test will bring the Genesis configuration to the Critical Design Review level, clearing the way for integration of the first flight article.

Genesis will also include windows and an airlock simulator with key seal interfaces. Both the plant here and subcontractors have done extensive tests at the component and inflated envelope level. Both long and short duration tests are being made on all the module's materials, at different temperatures. These include tests to failure done underwater or in special padded facilities to catch flying debris. And some debris has indeed "flown."

"We do not care that much about what a computer model says something is supposed to do," Bigelow said. "We test to the limit. We want to know pointblank what a component actually can do. And we do repeated tests on hardware from the same manufacturers."

Bladder permeability tests at up to four times normal pressure have been done, much of it at two subcontractors. There is little data on how unfolded materials behave for this key parameter, and Bigelow believes it is broadening the database for all future space inflated structures.

Subcontractors make more than 50% of the parts designed by Bigelow engineers, but the plant also makes key components. It has five computerized numeric control machines that can machine parts to within one-ten-thousandth of an inch, says Mike Penosa, the plant manager, with years of engineering experience in the U.S. Navy. The companys' welders and machinists average 15-18 years' experience.

Bigelow has coupled a competent team with a pragmatic philosophy. "We are a 100% experimental program, and we have to prepare for failures and not be overly shocked if they happen. We realize all of this is going to be done at significant risk," Bigelow says.

"But we also have an agenda we want to carry out, tied closely to the timing of our flight tests."

Life-Support Design

Development of an environmental control and life-support system that can provide air, water and carbon dioxide removal for a Nautilus inflatable module crew of 3-6 is underway at Bigelow Aerospace.

Private development of a station life-support system is one of the biggest challenges ever faced by a private space company.

Key subcontractors providing hardware for an initial ground development system include EADS Astrium, Boeing and other companies that must remain proprietary until they conclude contract negotiations with Bigelow. "Our immediate goal is completion of a ground demonstration system to test integrated systems, gain experience for troubleshooting and to train our own people," said Richard Chu, Bigelow life-support system manager. He was earlier a life-support specialist for Lockheed Martin.

Substantial components have already been delivered and others are due by year's end. Ground tests are to lead to the first orbital flight test of the system on two Guardian inflatable 45% scale module flights in 2006-07, followed by launch on the first full-scale Nautilus as early as 2008.

Hardware elements include:

  • Air revitalization: By year's end Bigelow will take delivery of a carbon-dioxide removal system from EADS Astrium that uses chemically coated beads, called solid amine, instead of the molecular sieve technology used on the ISS. The advantage of this system over the ISS is that it uses steam to revitalize the reactants, giving three-fold benefits. While the solid amine absorbs the carbon dioxide the process will also generate water from which oxygen can be extracted.
  • Water system: Boeing is providing a "flight ready" water handling system.
  • Gas analyzer: Two systems are being evaluated. One is a European-built system like that already integrated in Europe's Columbus ISS module, while the other is a commercial option built by Thermo Electron Corp. of Waltham, Mass., for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
  • Thermal/humidity control: Bigelow is working with EADS and a proprietary U.S. company for these elements.

Innovative Subcontracting

Bigelow Aerospace is working with about two dozen major subcontractors for its inflatable space module program, often issuing 3-5 subcontracts for the same component.

The company is attempting to build a broad and established subcontractor base for the future and also to compare workmanship among contractors. Bigelow is doing this not just to support development of one or two manned inflatable space modules but to generate an ongoing line of inflatables for diverse commercial or government civilian and military space research markets. "We want to have multiple subcontractors for every category," says Robert T. Bigelow, president and founder of the company. "We want multiple things fabricated to the same architecture."

"If this thing we are doing is ultimately successful, we have to be able to ramp up to volume production of inflatable space structures that the market might want us to produce," he says. "If we can develop confidence in the products from 2-3 subcontractors for individual components, it might become necessary for us to engage every one of them for module production."

Since he is funding the development out of his own personal finances, Bigelow can afford to do that where other aerospace companies cannot. But he also wants to apply his own experience in the Earth-based general building contractor field where he made a sizeable fortune.

"This is not exactly typical in aerospace, but one reason I am doing it after so many years as a general contractor is to bring philosophies from that realm into this business. And having multiple contractors for every category in general contracting is a must," he said.

Although many of Bigelow's subcontractors are established companies such as Boeing and EADS, many are not.

This is serendipitously adding to the national base of small and medium-size companies gaining aerospace experience. The emerging stature of these smaller companies is a trend likely to be especially important to bringing younger, more technologically savvy people into aerospace. At the same time it is broadening the subcontractor base needed for major new robotic and human exploration programs, an increasingly dynamic aerospace sector.

Unique Technology Mix

A mix of multilayered inflatable "soft goods" composed of advanced aerospace materials and more traditional aerospace aluminum structures and avionics are being integrated in heavily guarded Bigelow Aerospace buildings and outdoor test facilities at the company's 50-acre site here.

Bigelow has about 120,000 sq. ft of floor space under roof and several outdoor test facilities.

This Aviation Week & Space Technology editor and AW&ST photographer William G. Hartenstein are the only news media who have been permitted to tour all the facilities.

In addition to full- and sub-scale inflated module test hardware and fullscale metal module simulators, some of the hardware and technology we saw included:

  • Genesis spacecraft one-third scale inflated bladder and separate center longeron with a 4,500-psi. nitrogen tank to inflate the initial test system in space.
  • Nautilus full-scale air bladders (from a proprietary U.S. vendor) including one bladder hanging vertically and another positioned on a long table.
  • Bladder restraint system webbing in various forms of preparation and test. This extremely strong woven material is made up of about 1-in.-dia. straps to hold the bladder under a five-layer micrometeorite shield.
  • Ballistics test articles where the micrometeorite shield prevented penetration.
  • Early design of a full-scale box-like longeron truss, looking like an aluminum truss chimney, that will form the structural core of the Nautilus module.
  • Honeycomb parabolic longeron covers. These simple and light curved sheets will attach to the longeron beams during packaging to allow the bladder to lie flush during launch.
  • Windows, a difficult integration and seal challenge.
  • Common berthing mechanism mockup where the winning America's Space Prize crew transfer vehicle, Russian Soyuz or Chinese Shenzhou spacecraft could dock.
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