NORTH LAS VEGAS, Nev. —
At one end of Bigelow Aerospace’s factory is a mock-up of a gargantuan home for future astronauts. With a unique design — it could be packed into a rocket, then unfurled in space — it would comfortably house a dozen people as a voluminous space station or serve as a building block of a moon base.
“It’ll be a monster spacecraft by any current standards,” said Robert Bigelow, the company’s namesake founder, at a news conference in February.
This is Olympus, named after the mythological home of the Greek gods and a measure of Bigelow’s ambitions for building settlements in space.
Farther down the factory floor is a long, skinny metal structure. This is a developmental version of the spine of a more modest B330 module, which the company actually plans to build. Slight in appearance compared to Olympus, it would still be much less cramped than the metal cans that make up the International Space Station.
Bigelow says he is committed to having two B330s ready to launch in 2021, a step that could be a harbinger of the shift from a half-century of human spaceflight as a monopoly of government-run agencies like NASA to a capitalistic free-for-all. The Trump administration wants to accelerate that transition by ending direct federal financing of the space station after 2024.
“We also want numerous providers that are competing on cost and innovation,” Jim Bridenstine, the NASA administrator, said last week. “We would like to see NASA become one customer of many customers.”
If commercial stations prove cheaper to operate, NASA will have more money to pursue other goals, like sending astronauts to the moon and Mars, Bridenstine said.
Betting hundreds of millions of dollars on businesses that do not yet exist could turn out to be a quick way to lose a fortune. And space travel remains a dangerous avocation that could kill some people who make the trip.
Bigelow, who made his fortune founding Budget Suites of America, conceded earlier this year that he is not certain that he will be able to find customers for his B330s.
If there is no market, “then we would pause,” he said. “They would be sitting on the ground waiting for deployment if the business simply weren’t there.”
Home office in orbit
Today, the International Space Station is the only place where people — no more than six at a time — live away from Earth. It is a technological tour de force and the most expensive thing that humanity has ever built. The 15 nations involved, led by the United States and Russia, have spent well over $100 billion over more than two decades. The United States spends $3 billion to $4 billion each year.
Continuously occupied for nearly 18 years, the station serves as a test bed for studying the long-term effects of radiation and weightlessness on astronauts. NASA has become proficient at running the station, largely eliminating breakdowns like clogged toilets, balky cooling systems and crashing computers.
Perhaps most remarkable, life on the International Space Station has become unremarkable: It is a home office, albeit one more than 200 miles up and traveling at 17,000 mph, where astronauts work, eat, sleep, exercise, check on experiments and perform chores.
Only occasionally does the crew perform activities, like a spacewalk, that truly seem out of this world.
The possibility of retiring the International Space Station, part of the administration’s budget request, startled many. Companies like Bigelow are years from launching their space stations, and such expensive, cutting-edge projects often slip behind schedule.
Critics worry that the International Space Station might be discarded before its successors are ready. A gap without space stations would disrupt NASA’s studies, as well as emerging commercial endeavors. Nouveau space station companies could go belly up if the hoped-for customers are slow to show up.
While some companies are already paying to conduct modest experiments on the space station, they are heavily subsidized by the government. NASA, for instance, picks up the cost of sending experiments to and from space.
The failure of a Russian Soyuz rocket last month taking two astronauts to the space station illustrates how companies’ space endeavors could be undermined by events outside their control, making the long-term investments of such enterprises risky.
The astronauts were carried to safety, but now the space station is short-handed and many experiments may have to be neglected. If the Russians do not quickly solve the problem, the station may be left empty of astronauts in January.
Today’s space junk is tomorrow’s space habitat
Almost two decades ago, there was a commercial space station for a brief period of time. It was Russian, and an American named Jeffrey Manber ran it. Perhaps it could have succeeded — but NASA killed it.
“If you wanted to work with the capitalists in space in the 1990s, you worked with the Russians,” Manber said. “If you wanted to work with the socialists, you worked with NASA.”
After the breakup of the Soviet Union, the Russian space program was strapped for money and willing to consider ideas that might have seemed crazy for an ex-Communist country. Mir, the Russian space station, was seen as ramshackle and dated, about to be replaced by the bigger, better International Space Station.
But Manber and other entrepreneurs in the United States saw Mir, destined to be destroyed, more as a fixer-upper. Energia, Mir’s manufacturer, agreed to partner with the Americans to create MirCorp, a commercial venture that leased the station from Russia’s government.
The initial pitch from Energia was using the station for research, particularly on pharmaceuticals. Manber knew that possibility was at best years away.
“Quickly, I veered to the market that existed,” he said, “which was entertainment and media, and we could do it, because we were in control.”
MirCorp signed up the first space tourist, Dennis Tito, for a trip to Mir. It sold the idea of a reality television series to NBC, and Mark Burnett, the producer who created “Survivor,” “The Apprentice” and “Shark Tank,” was set to make it. (Tito was indeed the first space tourist, in 2001, but it was to the International Space Station.)
“Had that run, we would have kept Mir up there forever,” Manber said.
But the Russians yielded to NASA’s insistence on dumping Mir, which was nudged out of orbit and into the Pacific in 2001.
Today, Manber has carved out a successful niche in the space station ecosystem as chief executive of NanoRacks, a small Houston-based startup. NanoRacks has simplified the process of sending experiments to the space station and also launches small satellites known as CubeSats from the station.
A couple of years ago, Manber asked his engineers to look into a quirky idea that NASA had previously discarded: Could used rocket parts left in orbit after launch be converted into a low-cost space station?
With advances in robotics, the prospects of doing that now appear more promising.
NanoRacks, collaborating with United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, won a NASA contract to explore the idea further, focusing on the second stage of ULA’s workhorse Atlas 5 rocket.
The idea is to add a small robotics module between the second stage, known as a Centaur, and the satellite payload on top.
Typically, when the Centaur has pushed the satellite to the desired orbit, it burns up in the atmosphere. With the NanoRacks plan, once the Centaur is done with its main mission, the robotics piece cuts holes, seals compartments and converts the fuel tanks into living quarters.
They called the concept of a rocket stage-turned-habitat Ixion, after the grandfather of the Centaurs.
With a bit more Greek mythology research, they realized that was not the best name. Ixion was an unsavory character — he murdered his father-in-law and later attempted to seduce Zeus’ wife.
Now the concept is named the NanoRacks Space Outpost Program, and the company hopes to attach one of the outposts to the International Space Station.
NanoRacks again sees space tourism as an early market. Manber thinks NASA and space enthusiasts often take too narrow a view of what businesses might develop in space.
“I’d like to arrange the first weddings in space,” he said. “I think space stations are extraordinarily cool, and I don’t think they have been exploited.”
For Manber, the key is flexibility.
“The market will tell us the market,” he said. “So we go with it. We’re surfing.”
A ‘bajillion reasons’ to go private
The third major entrant in the private space station race is Axiom Space, also headquartered in Houston. It is led by Michael T. Suffredini, who ran NASA’s portion of the International Space Station until he retired in 2015.
Suffredini said an Axiom station with modern technologies would cost about $50 million a year to operate, a small fraction of what the International Space Station costs.
“There’s a bajillion reasons why that’s the case,” Suffredini said. “We’ve done a lot of work to validate that number. It’s a shocking number for us, too.”
Lower costs open the possibility of profit. “I think it’s over a billion-dollar market,” he said.
Suffredini would not describe in detail all of the possible markets he foresees, but the business would include sending the wealthy on sightseeing trips — Philippe Starck, the superstar French designer, is designing the interior of the Axiom module — and offering factory space for manufacturers looking to produce materials that can only be made in space.
“I’m absolutely certain we can pull off our business plan,” Suffredini said.
He thinks he has one significant advantage over the other companies. He has run a space station and kept people alive in space.
While Axiom, Bigelow and NanoRacks aim to one day replace the International Space Station, in the short run all three companies hope to become a bigger part of the current station.
Bigelow currently has a modest expandable docked at the space station that serves as a closet and demonstrates that the technology works. NASA is preparing to issue a competition early next year for a larger commercial module at that docking port. Bigelow will suggest adding a B330. NanoRacks envisions one of its converted Centaurs.
NanoRacks is pushing NASA to add a hub that would accommodate three commercial modules, enabling different companies to offer different capabilities to different customers — space hotels for the rich, autonomous factories of fiber optics, laboratories for pharmaceutical research. In time, those could expand to multiple stations in different orbits.
“You cannot bank and bet on one company and one piece of hardware,” he said.
But not everyone is convinced the numbers add up.
Paul K. Martin, NASA’s inspector general, this year issued a report outlining these concerns.
“Specifically, we question whether a sufficient business case exists under which private companies will be able to develop a self-sustaining and profit-making business independent of significant federal funding within the next six years,” he said.
Congress also has so far been skeptical of — and sometimes hostile to — the idea of retiring the space station.
The leaders of the three companies also point to a danger of competition — from NASA and China.
If NASA continues to subsidize research on the station, then commercial companies may not be able to compete, even if they are cheaper.
“How do we make sure it’s a level playing field?” Manber said.
China plans to finish its own space station in the early 2020s, and officials have promised to make it available to researchers around the world. Russia has also talked about retaining its half of the International Space Station should the Americans withdraw.
Space policy experts, even those who enthusiastically hope that NASA will take a more commercial approach, hesitate to predict when putting people in space becomes economically viable for private enterprise.
“There’s something missing from closing the commercial business case,” said Charles Miller, a former NASA official who is now president of Nexgen Space.
In 2025, Miller expects there will be three space stations in orbit: the International Space Station, the Chinese station and the beginnings of a commercial one.
“We’ll still have raging debates about the future of the International Space Station,” he said.