Bigelow Partnership is Potentially Quite Lucrative for Florida

A Boeing CST-100 crew module docks at a Bigelow Aerospace space station. (Credit: Boeing)

A bit more on the Bigelow-Space Florida MOU, which was signed at an event yesterday at Cape Canaveral. It looks as if the actual cooperative venture is relatively modest in the near term, but potentially quite lucrative in the long run — providing state officials play their cards right and ante up.

First, the specifics of the MOU:

Yesterday, Space Florida President Frank DiBello and Robert Bigelow, president of Bigelow Aerospace, signed a Memorandum of Understanding, agreeing to work together to pursue and identify foreign and domestic companies that could benefit from utilization of Bigelow’s expandable, orbital space complexes.

Bigelow currently has two pathfinder expandable systems successfully orbiting the Earth, and plans to build the first of multiple fully-functioning stations by 2015. The initial “Alpha” complex will be comprised of Bigelow’s patented “Sundancer” and “BA 330” modules, which are significantly larger than current modules aboard the International Space Station. Additionally, customer launch and lease rates for the facilities are expected to be extremely cost-efficient for domestic and international customers. Bigelow is marketing eighteen (18) separate human space flight programs with a variety of duration and pricing options, including an option of $28,750,000 for a 30-day astronaut visit.

According to Bigelow, if the company attracts enough customers to lease all of the orbiting, inflatable modules on Complex Alpha, it could mean up to 25 launches a year – possibly from Cape Canaveral – to ferry cargo and crew. Module launches could be accommodated by current United Launch Alliance Atlas V rockets or other vendors.

It is intended that this innovative partnership will help build a dynamic future for on-orbit commercial space operations, enhancing overall launch activity, employment, and growth of the aerospace field in Florida.

This collaborative business development partnership will also explore approaches to supporting 1/3 scale models of the orbiting outposts in Florida. These models would assist in marketing to new customers as well as simulation of customer requirements and concepts of operations for payloads, prior to flight.

So, the parties will work together to identify potential clients and establish an exhibit of Bigelow technologies as a marketing tool. Although it does not constitute a commitment to launch from Florida, the prospects are enticing:

  • launching dozens of private commercial space missions per year from Cape Canaveral
  • replacing the jobs lost due to the space shuttle shutdown — and possibly more
  • rebuilding Cape Canaveral’s commercial launch industry, which has been devastated by foreign competition
  • employing 1,500 to 2,000 people at a Bigelow production facility on the Space Coast
  • diversifying Florida’s space industry away from the launch industry to manufacturing and microgravity research and development
  • invigorating a state slammed by the global downturn, foreign competition and the end of space shuttle flights
  • Making Florida the center of a thriving commercial space industry that will revolutionize our access to space.

Bigelow would build modules for the first two space stations at its facility in Las Vegas. However, it has plans for larger space stations that would require a facility near the launch site because they would be too massive to ship. That could bring up to 2,000 jobs to whichever location hosts the launch facility.

The MOU is a great step forward for Florida, providing a partnership that state officials can leverage in attracting the required public and private investment. And it’s an opportunity that Space Florida officials will pursue vigorously.

“Space Florida continues to pursue a number of diverse strategies to propel the growth of the space industry in Florida,” said Space Florida President Frank DiBello. “Bigelow has developed an orbital work environment that has substantial commercial applications. Our goal through this partnership will be not only to establish a significant Bigelow presence in Florida, but also to leverage both companies’ relationships to attract new, internationally-based customers for the orbiting complex.”

However, it is not a sure thing, as Bigelow explained:

“The absolute, ultimate, most important action, I think, that the state of Florida can take, beginning now, is to secure launch facilities to be used exclusively by the new commercial space industry, and to provide all possible political support,” he said.

Then the state should pull together economic development incentives on a scale similar to the $212 million New Mexico anted up to draw Virgin Galactic and others to Spaceport America near Las Cruces, N.M.

“So what are Space Florida and the state of Florida to do? The first thing to do is raise money. The second thing is to raise money. And, the third thing is to raise money,” Bigelow said.

“Like the old saying, ‘No bucks? No Buck Rogers, right?’ “

The message is clear: Florida will need to ante up if it wants to be the prime launch site for Bigelow’s space empire. Other launch sites are being considered, including Wallops Island in Virginia and possibly Tanegashima in Japan. Bigelow has signed MOUs with space organizations in seven countries for use of the space stations, including Japan, Australia, Singapore, Sweden, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Dubai.

Bigelow is looking to launch on multiple rockets from different spaceports to limit the risk of delays associated with any one launch system or location. Bigelow officials have expressed the preference for keeping launch operations in the United States. The company launched two prototype stations from Russia, but dealing with U.S. ITAR export restrictions were burdensome. The Obama Administration is pursuing ITAR reform, although prospects are unclear due to a more conservative Congress. Launches overseas can be less expensive, a factor that has devastated Cape Canaveral’s commercial launch business.

In additional to needing some state help, Bigelow’s plans also hinge upon what the federal government will do on commercial space. The company has partnered with Boeing on its seven-seat CST-100 crew transport, which would serve both Bigelow’s space facilities and the International Space Station. NASA provided funding for the project last year under the Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program. The space agency plans to make a second round of grants next month.

NASA’s ultimate goal with CCDev is to develop multiple, redundant human access to space using a mix of different boosters and spacecraft provided on a commercial basis. This is precisely what Bigelow needs for his plans to succeed. The space station technology is in place; getting people and cargo 250 miles up has been the roadblock all along.

Bigelow’s plans are ambitious and, if successful, could help revolutionize the way humans explore and settle the cosmos. If Florida plays its cards right, the Sunshine State could find itself at the very center of the action. Whether that will happen remains to be seen.