x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Robert Bigelow: the innkeeper of inflatable space habitats

Robert Bigelow, an eccentric American businessman who made his fortune with budget hotels, has invested $500 million in inflatable space habitats that Nasa is to put to the test in 2015.

Robert Bigelow listens to questions from journalists at a news conference in Las Vegas last month. Alongside Bigelow is a sample of the space pods he is working to build. Julie Jacobson / AP Photo
Robert Bigelow listens to questions from journalists at a news conference in Las Vegas last month. Alongside Bigelow is a sample of the space pods he is working to build. Julie Jacobson / AP Photo
Robert Bigelow got rich off budget hotel suites that start at US$189 (Dh694) a week. Now they are funding his dream of building inflatable space habitats with rates topping $400,000 a day.
"I guess it seems strange or unique to other people," he says. "To me, it's just following a dream that I have had all of my life of doing something important that was space- related."
For the Las Vegas businessman, his desire to build low orbital dwellings is the ultimate gamble. He has bet $500 million of his own money on his closely held venture, Bigelow Aerospace - five times what the billionaire Elon Musk invested in his own space company.
"If you don't have bucks, there's no Buck Rodgers," says Mr Bigelow, 68, echoing a phrase from the film, The Right Stuff, about the early days of the US space flight programme.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration this month announced a $17.8m contract to Bigelow Aerospace for an inflatable room that will be attached to a port on the International Space Station some time in 2015. Astronauts will use the prototype for two years, allowing Nasa to test the technology for "pennies on the dollar", says Lori Garver, the agency's deputy administrator.
Mr Bigelow has spent about half of his stake. He may never recoup the investment, according to Jeff Foust, an analyst at Futron, a Bethesda, Maryland-based technology consultancy.
"Are there enough customers out there to make this a worthwhile venture?" Mr Foust says. "It's yet to be seen."
Nasa's award to Bigelow Aerospace means that the 1,300-kilogramme inflatable spare room that uses a Kevlar-like fabric called Vectran will be tested to see how it withstands space debris and radiation.
The technology is based on an idea conceived in the 1990s by Nasa, which let Mr Bigelow licence the patents, according to Mike Gold, the director of Washington operations for Bigelow Aerospace. The company has taken the blueprints to fruition by building actual test structures, Mr Gold says.
Nasa retired its shuttle fleet in 2011 and relies on Russia for rides to space at a cost of about $63m per astronaut. It has turned to the private industry to ferry cargo and eventually humans to the station.
Mr Bigelow needs US companies such as Boeing and Musk's Space Exploration Technologies Corp, known as SpaceX, to develop lower-cost alternatives, Mr Foust says. Otherwise, he says, Mr Bigelow's private stations "literally won't get off the ground".
SpaceX's first flight last year of an unmanned cargo ship to the International Space Station signalled the start of a new era in commercial space flight, Mr Bigelow says.
Eventually, Mr Bigelow intends to build stand-alone stations launched by privately operated rockets that can be used as research laboratories orbiting Earth or be part of an effort to establish a permanent presence on the moon or Mars. Although a permanent habitat will not be ready before 2016, his company is promoting a round-trip flight and 60-day stay aboard the "Alpha Station" for $26.3m a head.
Mr Bigelow is a lesser known figure in the privately funded space race that has drawn high-risk adventurers such as Mr Musk and the British entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson, whose Virgin Galactic is taking bookings online for $200,000 "Pioneer Astronaut" suborbital flights. Abu Dhabi's Aabar Investments holds a 32-per-cent stake in Virgin Galactic, which proposes to build its second spaceport in the emirate.
Mr Bigelow likewise has an ally in the Emirates. In early 2011, he signed a memorandum with the Dubai-based Emirates Institution for Advanced Science and Technology to "explore joint efforts".
The hotelier grew up in Las Vegas. During his first semester in college, his father died in a plane crash. He later graduated from Arizona State University with a bachelor's degree in business. He and his wife, Diane, raised two sons.
Mr Bigelow has nursed a lifelong obsession with unidentified flying objects after his mother regaled him with the tale of his grandparents seeing a glowing flying object while driving through the desert in 1947.
He has amassed a library of about 3,500 books about UFOs, cosmology and related subjects. He gave financial backing to the National Institute for Discovery Science, which hunted UFOs and studied paranormal activities before disbanding in 2004. He has recorded interviews with almost 250 people who claim to have had a sighting or encounter with a UFO, and says he believes alien wreckage was discovered in Roswell, New Mexico, in the 1940s.
"I'm in the camp that has zero doubt" that UFOs exist and have visited the Earth, Mr Bigelow said.
Mr Bigelow, who declines to discuss his net worth, made his fortune through a chain of residential hotels in the south-west US. He caught the property bug from his maternal grandfather who leased several apartments on his property.
"I kind of, by osmosis, got the notion that you could make a good living off of that and have regular income, if you did the right things," he says. He says he sold about one-third of his Budget Suites of America properties before the recent recession. "People were just throwing money at you and begging you to sell," he says. "It became ridiculous."
James Oberg, a former mission control specialist for Nasa and space consultant in Dickinson, Texas, who accompanied Mr Bigelow to Russia in 2007 for the launch of a prototype habitat, says the hotelier has the passion to help shape the next generation of space travel.
"Bigelow has his own style and his own passions," Mr Oberg says. "He struck me as a builder of things rather than a master and user of wealth and privilege."
On the ground, Mr Bigelow is distinctly low-tech: he shuns email. Visitors to his space venture's headquarters in North Las Vegas will notice that security guards refer to him as "Mr Big".
Even if he completes his dreams on schedule, Mr Bigelow will then be in his 70s, making it unlikely that the entrepreneur will ever make the trip out to his low-earth orbit habitat.
"This isn't about benefiting one human," Mr Gold says. "This is about opening up space for all of humanity."
 
* Bloomberg News, with files from The National