My own private space station

Robert Bigelow has his funding priorities straight: Orbiting cruise ships and paranormal research.

Published June 7, 2001 4:32PM (EDT)

If you're interested in the possibility of life after death; if you've had an encounter with aliens, or believe that UFOs occasionally conduct drive-by surveillance of unsuspecting earthlings; if you blame extraterrestrials for the rash of freakish cattle mutilations that a New Mexico rancher discovered in 1998, then you are probably familiar with Robert Bigelow.

Bigelow, who made his fortune running Budget Suites, may be the United States' largest funder of research into the paranormal. The owner of a chain of hotels in Nevada, Texas and Arizona, Bigelow bought a ranch in Utah where residents had reported unearthly lights and other strange occurrences and staffed it with a full-time veterinarian and two scientists to monitor any alienlike activity. He founded the National Institute for Discovery Science, which sponsors research into UFOs and other paranormal phenomena and collects accounts of sightings and other unexplained events from the public.

The University of Nevada at Las Vegas has also received much of his largess. Bigelow has donated millions of dollars for the construction of the Bigelow Physics Building as well as the UNLV Bigelow Chair of Consciousness Studies, which is dedicated to the "rational investigation of the mysteries of human awareness, including the possibility of the persistence of consciousness after death."

Now he's poised to spend a lot more. Bigelow Aerospace recently filed an application to open up space to commercial interests with the creation of a space station -- a privilege currently restricted to NASA and the Russian aerospace program -- and, eventually, "cruise ships" for tourists. Bigelow says he can build the first installment of his space station in two years, and reports that his aerospace engineers are already working on the modules of a research station for eventual use by private companies seeking to do research in microgravitational climes. But the major hurdle isn't building the station, it's getting permission from the Federal Aviation Administration to bring it into space, and NASA's assistance in launching it. Bigelow (who refuses to be photographed by or for the press, and does not do TV interviews) recently hired the Washington law firm Patton Boggs to help take his application through the FAA's approval process -- one that no one else has ever completed.

For Bigelow, the connection between the paranormal and the commercialization of space is less obvious than you might think. For an ardent believer in UFOs and a host of other phenomena most Americans expect to read about only in tabloids, Bigelow is realistic about what he might find in space. Building a space station is less about getting closer to aliens than it is about making the wonders of space available to all, or at least more Americans, and about a firm faith in the power of commercialization to bring change -- not to mention a deep grudge against one of Bigelow's least favorite government agencies, NASA.

You've written before about the need to commercialize space. What does that mean, and how does it compare to the prevailing attitude abut space, especially NASA's perspective?

It's quite insidious. NASA's version of commercialization is not privatization. Those are two very different words in NASA's mentality. NASA's view of commercialization is: "We, NASA, own everything. We own all the hardware. We own the facilities to move people back and forth, and when they get there, we own that facility too."

So in our scheme of commercializing things, we intend to be in business. They are a federal agency that's tax exempt and that gets $14 billion a year. And so they are paying no income taxes and here they are absolutely in business. They take 100 percent of the revenue of any company that pays them to do anything. And that's wrong; that's absolutely dead wrong. And it's a huge competitor to free enterprise.

Why do you think NASA has been reluctant to allow tourists in space, like Dennis Tito, for example?

Well, it's the mentality that "we own space." NASA stands for "No Access to Space for Americans" -- that's what it stands for to me and to most Americans. NASA has exclusive control and a lock on everything having to do with space, except for the Russian side. And they were just beyond belief in being rude and obnoxious [in response to Dennis Tito's trip]. It was just embarrassing to this country.

What does Bigelow Aerospace intend to do in space if its current bid is granted by the FAA?

Well, the ultimate fantasy for us is to have a cruise ship in orbit, maybe around the year 2015. A cruise ship implies that it is moving somewhere; it isn't just orbiting. A space station is a precursor to that. Space stations typically maintain a position -- it could be in LEO [low Earth orbit] or one of the five "Le Grange" points, which are states of equilibrium between the sun and the moon. It takes no energy to maintain that location.

Our focus is to create a breakthrough in the cost of habitual modules, then to configure these together into a space station. We want to work with other companies, to work with other countries, to work, if possible, with NASA -- although that's pretty doubtful. And so the idea is to create space stations in LEO with other people who perform research and development. The big thing, of course, and what's in it for human beings, is more than tourism -- it's the enormous technology promise that space holds and offers to the human race.

What is the advantage of doing science in space?

Over the last 20 years there have been a lot of experiments flown, both on [U.S.] shuttles and on Mir, and what has evolved is that very unique things happen to organic and nonorganic substances in that environment.

[Commercial research] has not exploded in a great rush to the new frontier because the costs have been prohibitive -- to get people back and forth or to get supplies back and forth -- and the laboratories in which these experiments are flown are so small that there's very little room to do anything. They're all on a very small scale; they are not in a production kind of mode. And that's part of the problem.

If the facilities were better, what kinds of work do you imagine taking place?

What has been shown so far is that there are substances produced in space that have been proven far superior to terrestrial substances. There's something called ZBLAN. It's a fiber-optic cable material and I believe Boeing and several other companies have patents on this. It can only be made in a microgravity environment and as such it achieves a significant level of purity that can't be obtained under gravity's influence. It's about 100 times more pure than the best fiber-optic cable that can be made terrestrially. That means it can carry 100 times the information.

Would there be room for space tourists as well?

The precursor to [an eventual] cruise ship or hotel is guesthouses. When you have these stations and you have, hopefully, pharmaceutical companies, material science companies of all different kinds, using a facility like this, they have to have somewhere to stay. And those people might not always be payload specialists. They might be people from the media or people from entertainment or Joe Blow down the street in some sort of unusual circumstance.

Will you be going to other companies to raise money for the space station?

We have sufficient monies to pursue research and development on building very safe, habitable modules. And our systems are more safe than the aluminum cans that are up there. We're using inflatable technologies. We also expect at least an order of magnitude or more of reduction in per-cubic-footage cost of the module. We are looking for an enormous shift in the cost of things. This means that large corporations can own their own stations and small corporations can own a piece of stations. Countries could own stations as well; they wouldn't have to be wealthy countries.

When do you think this could be done?

For the cruise ship, that idea is around 2015. What's more important to us, and hopefully will work for everybody, is that we will be ready to deploy a life-size module, which by itself is a small station. A life-size module is a little over two-and-a-half times the volume of just one module on the ISS [International Space Station] today. So by itself it's pretty large. We're going to be ready to launch a module in 24 months. We will have one or more of these modules built and ready to go.

Will you have a way to launch it?

Not necessarily. And probably the biggest deterrent to that is going to be our own government.

Has it been difficult to convince the FAA to let you go forward with your plans?

The FAA and the AST [associate administrator for commercial space transportation] are cooperating with us so far. NASA is going to be our biggest headache -- NASA does not want any competition. And there are a lot of congressmen and senators that are in the pocket of NASA.

You're one of the country's biggest funders of research into the paranormal. Where did that interest come from?

In the UFO category, it was spawned when I was probably around 8 or 9. I began to hear the stories about members of my family that had had a couple of very good sightings, and one was a close encounter.

They didn't see actually living creatures. What they saw was an object that they thought was an airplane on fire at first. They stopped their car; it was nighttime and the object was coming right for them. And it grew bigger and bigger in a very short time, a matter of maybe seconds, until it filled up the windshield. Then they realized it wasn't an airplane on fire; they didn't know what it was. Their car was stopped on the side of the road in a remote location at night and they thought they were dead -- until, at the last second before impact, it made a right-angle turn and zipped out of sight.

And I remember how shook up they were. Even in telling me years later, they had a very serious look on their face. They thought their lives were over. But our own scientists have seen things during their employment -- sightings at key locations.

Have you ever had a sighting?

No, I haven't.

Are you waiting?

No, I'm not waiting. The institute that I formed and that I fund (the National Institute for Discovery Science) has been in existence for about six years. We do a lot of fieldwork, and there are members of our staff and there are scientists that have witnessed bizarre aerial phenomena in remote locations.

Do you subscribe to any of the conspiracy theories about NASA covering up the existence of paranormal activity?

No, I don't, and it isn't so neat as that. NASA is not that sophisticated, they're not that organized, they're not that focused. NASA is an organization without a vision, and because they don't have any vision, they don't have missions that make much sense.

Is this a spiritual enterprise for you?

No. But that's an oxymoron as far as Washington, D.C., and politics are concerned. You don't get into spirituality or those kinds of feelings. But the astronauts have: They've all had some sort of epiphany, whether they've gone to the moon or orbited. To them, that kind of experience is almost life changing. So to get yourself out of the governmental gutter and into the positive light of space, that's not going to happen because of some agency. That's going to happen because people do it together. The only way meaningful change has ever occurred is that private enterprise has been there to do it.

So do you think that all Americans have a right to the kind of life-changing experience that is often had in space?

It's not whether you have a right to enhance your spirit or your soul in some way (and maybe you would or would not have an epiphany; that's an individual reaction), but you do have a right as an American citizen not to be handcuffed as to what's potential for you, for your children, for your grandchildren, and not to be suffocated by some federal agency's greed. And NASA is a very greedy organization. They have 18,000 people and could do just as well by half.

Do you see this work on the space station as bringing you closer to getting answers to some of the questions you have about UFOs?

No, because the physics of the paranormal is so far beyond our understanding. The topic of UFOs or other paranormal subject matter is way beyond today's science, way beyond tomorrow's space stations. Tomorrow's space stations just give us a leg up on being able to have a very exotic array of medicines and materials and so forth to enhance our lives over the next century. We can't compare ourselves to beings that have probably been in existence millions or billions of years longer than we have been. We theoretically could have a presence and we wouldn't even know it.

By Amy Standen

Amy Standen is a writer living in Oakland, Calif.

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