Genesis Space Habitat: Outer Spaceways Inc.

Commercial space tourism is becoming a reality. The Genesis II is the second of two inflatable space habitat prototype modules engineered by BA and currently in our orbit. They've been launched and are orbiting the earth; they aren't just aerospace vaporware.
“Inflatable Station Concept”, 1961, NASA HG-GRIN
by Ross Bonander

Specs:

  • Type: Privately-funded, expandable space habitat prototype
  • Manufacturer: Bigelow Aerospace
  • Propulsion system: None. Altitude control and stabilization achieved using magnetic torque rods, GPS and sun sensors and a reaction-wheel system
  • Minimum altitude: 342 miles (550 km)
  • Speed: 16,928 mph (27,243 km/h)
  • Power production: 8 solar arrays charge the module's battery
  • Internal atmospheric pressure: 10.1-10.5 psia (varies due to thermal effects of sunlight)
  • Launch date: June 28, 2007
  • Launch location: ISC Kosmotras Space and Missile Complex, Russia
  • Module size (expanded) : Length=4.4 m Diameter=2.5 m
  • Module size (contracted) : Length=4.4 m Diameter=1.6 m
  • Earth orbit frequency: Once every 96 minutes
  • Projected orbital life: At least 12 years
  • Norad ID: #31789
  • Projected tourist fee: $15 million

The manufacturer says

"Genesis II will …set the stage for Bigelow Aerospace's future manned orbital complexes."

Overview

Commercial space tourism is becoming a reality (at least among the super-wealthy, where most high technology finds its first consumers). Pioneering the way was Burt Rutan, Scaled Composites, and their Ansari X-Prize winning SpaceShipOne. Meanwhile NASA has already begun to contract out its cargo launch needs to private aerospace companies such as Elon Musk's Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), and, much less successfully so, Rocketplane-Kistler.

While those firms are building rockets to get from A to B, Bigelow Aerospace (BA) is working on the B part–the destination–and to that end the Genesis II is the second of two inflatable space habitat prototype modules engineered by BA and currently in our orbit. The fact that they've been launched and are indeed orbiting the earth make the modules unique. They aren't, in other words, aerospace vaporware.

baja from space
Baja, CA, NASA-JSC

The point of the Genesis II module is to allow the company to test and validate various technologies that will lead to the construction of a full-scale, crewed, commercial orbital space complex. That first planned human module is the three-person Sundancer, scheduled to go into orbit in 2010 or 2011. The further idea is to outfit Sundancer with a propulsion module and connecting node, enabling a six-person unit to join her in 2012.

What we like

The location of Mission Control. Bigelow Aerospace operates four ground stations—in Hawaii, Alaska, Nevada and Maine—but Mission Control itself is located in none other than Sin City. You almost knew it would happen one day—the Strip meets outer space. I can hear the famous transmission now: "Vegas baby, we have a problem …"

The rocket that got her there. Good glasnost! The Russian Dnepr rocket that launched Genesis II into orbit was a reconstituted Soviet ICBM, originally built to carry a nuke across the ocean and blow America to bits.

floating dude
Astronaut Truly, 1981NASA-JSC

The promotion. Bigelow Aerospace launched a promotion called "Fly Your Stuff", which accepted items, such as driver's licenses, from the public for a nominal fee, then included them in the Genesis II. Participants can actually see pictures of their 'stuff' floating around inside an area of the module. Not my bag, but a clever way to capture the imagination of the public while raising one's profile and one's coffers.

The expandability. The Genesis II module was launched as a flexible outer surface wrapped around a central core. Once in orbit, it was inflated with air. This architecture drastically reduces weight and requires less power to launch.

What we don’t

The planned excursion. $15 million for four weeks (down from an estimated $20 million in 2006). That's pretty steep, even for a multi-millionaire, especially when we don't really know what kind of entertainment Bigelow's going to offer. Someone's imagination should be running wild right now about all the possibilities, especially from a Vegas-based organization, but it's just not there.

I feel blasphemous for suggesting this, but weightlessness might get old after a few weeks if you don't have a whole lot to do. How many times can you suspend an M&M in mid-air then do a somersault before gobbling it up? Attaching a vacuum to your body to clear your bowels could also get tedious—but only if the trip itself were tedious. Otherwise, I imagine it would be easy to tolerate just about anything to be in orbit. No city on earth could possibly compete with the experience. Or the view.

Bigelow has hinted that costs could eventually come down to $40,000 or so which, size-permitting, could encourage the likes of business conferences. Wouldn't that be the ultimate business trip?

roswell new mexico
Roswell, NM, NASA-JSC

Conclusions

Bigelow Aerospace is a company with deep pockets; owner and founder Robert T. Bigelow got rich off the Budget Suites of America hotel chain. According to a recent article in the Skeptical Inquirer (Robert Sheaffer, "Bigelow's Aerospace and Saucer Emporium", July/August 2009), Bigelow's aerospace aims may go beyond basic space tourism.

Bigelow is a well-known figure in the UFO community. By way of Bigelow Aerospace Advanced Space Studies, he recently struck an agreement with MUFON, the largest collection of US Ufologists, to establish a nationwide set of quick-response investigative teams to reach presumably 'authentic' sites of UFO encounters.

Thus it wouldn't be beyond the imagination to think that the 22 cameras on both the interior and exterior of Genesis II serve ET-style, alien-spotting purposes as well as more practical, Mission-Control related ones, such as inspecting the module's exterior for damage. Whether or not his $15 million tourists will be tasked to remain on the lookout for flying saucers is unknown, but such is our capacity for self-deception that, if you go looking for evidence of ghosts or little green men, the odds of finding it are really good. Too good, actually—far better than any you'd ever see in Vegas.

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