I-Team: Bigelow Aerospace Begins Big Expansion - 8 News NOW

Chief Investigative Reporter George Knapp and Chief Photojournalist Matt Adams

I-Team: Bigelow Aerospace Begins Big Expansion

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NORTH LAS VEGAS, Nev. -- More than a few doubts were raised back when the signs went up at Warp Drive and Skywalker Way, and again when Bob Bigelow spoke of hotels in space for the ultimate vacation. But after two successful launches of Bigelow's homegrown Genesis Spacecraft, the aerospace industry isn't laughing anymore.

Now, Bigelow is briskly moving into new territory. A 185,000 square foot addition to the Bigelow Aerospace plant in North Las Vegas represents the birth of a global industry right in our backyard. It is way beyond research and development. It's a production facility for spacecraft, a factory for building habitats for use on the moon, or Mars, or beyond.

"The only purpose this addition has is for production. We have three spacecraft, three production lines and the assembly plant you would normally have," he said.

Bigelow expects the plant to be open for business by this time next year. It means his lean workforce of 115 would expand by an additional 1,200 new positions -- engineers, technicians, and support staff. It is exactly the kind of economic diversification Nevada leaders say they yearn for.

"We kind of keep a little quiet. It has huge potential," he said.

In more ways than one. Starting just over 10 years ago, Bigelow committed $500 million of his own money. He licensed a canceled NASA project called Trans-hab, added 14 or so of his own patents, and created a much improved expandable habitat that, essentially, means more space in space. One was launched in 2006, and another in 2007. They are still up there.

"Both vehicles performed flawlessly in terms of pressure maintenance and thermal control -- environmental containment. We're real pleased with their performance," said project manager Erik Haakonstad.

They were so pleased, the company skipped right over an interim craft to go for the gusto -- three different designs that each offer much more than the cramped modules that make up the International Space Station.

"This is three times the volume of the average module on the ISS," said Bigelow. "These are totally self-contained, habitable spacecraft."

The company has come so far, so fast in part by keeping things simple -- sometimes relying on off-the-shelf components. There are no technical barriers remaining.

"They are flight ready, qualified, and ready to bolt on as soon as we have a structure to bolt it onto," said project engineer Jay Ingham.

Bigelow uses his intricate models as part of the sales pitch to foreign governments or corporations -- anyone interested in leasing one or more of the modules. Seven countries have already signed on, including the United Kingdom, Japan, and Australia, meaning they can put their own astronauts into space without paying for an entire space program from scratch.

The plant also has full scale mockups, and the biggest difference between these and what is up there now is elbow room. How important is that for long term missions? Just ask the Bigelow employee who has been to the ISS as the pilot of a space shuttle mission.

"It's nice to have privacy. On the shuttle, we had communal living on the mid-deck. Sometimes I spent a night on the Space Station just to get away. For these long duration missions, you will need some personal time," said former astronaut Bill Oefelein.

As for how much it would cost to lease one of the Bigelow modules, they have a very detailed price list and a sophisticated pitch about why a country or a company would want to boldly go to this new frontier.

Friday on 8 News NOW at 11, the I-Team will discuss the cost - in case you want to start saving now - and look at a proposed moon base. Plus, the I-Team will have the details from NASA's announcement which could give Bigelow a piece of the international space station.

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