Bob Bigelow Needs a Ride to Orbit

There’s an interesting piece on Explorersweb about Robert Bigelow and his plans for space habitats. It provides a good overview of his success in launching two Genesis prototypes and his plans for full-scale Sundancer space stations.

The Genesis modules have performed as advertised, but the Achille’s heel of the whole operation remains transportation into orbit, which is neither plentiful nor cheap. The only vehicles that could make the trip are:

  • American space shuttle
  • Russian Soyuz
  • Chinese Soyuz-derived Shenzhou

NASA plans to retire the shuttle, which is too expensive anyway. The Russian and Chinese vehicles are three seaters – too few to make a space station profitable even if they were available for commercial flights, which they are not. So, what are Bigelow’s options?

Bigelow in fact set up an American Space Prize some years ago, offering $50 million to the first American-built, privately funded rocket/spacecraft that can send five people into orbit, dock with a Bigelow Aerospace habitat and stay there for 6 months. The deadline for the Prize is set for January 10, 2010.

Elon Musk is pretty confident he is Bigelow’s man: “SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launcher is scheduled to carry a payload for Bigelow Aerospace in 2009 or 2010,” Elon said last year, “and Bigelow’s vision of a system of orbiting space habitats serve as a promising destination for SpaceX’s Dragon crewed spacecraft.”

Musk’s company, SpaceX, must built a human-rated version of the Dragon, which neither he nor Bigelow seem to have enough money to fund on their own. Hence, Musk has been publicly lobbying for NASA to provide an additional $300 million under its COTS program, which has been helping to fund the development of the Dragon freighter and its Falcon 9 launch vehicle. And he would have to do that in less than a year.

Good luck with that.