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Image: Inflatable space module
Bigelow Aerospace
Bigelow Aerospace plans to build inflatable structures that can be placed in Earth orbit. America's Space Prize is aimed at encouraging the development of private-sector spacecraft to dock with the structures, as shown in this artist's concept.
By Senior space writer
updated 11/8/2004 2:02:41 PM ET 2004-11-08T19:02:41

Anyone who wants to follow in the shoes of Burt Rutan and win the next big space prize will have to build a spacecraft capable of taking a crew of no fewer than five people to an altitude of 250 miles (400 kilometers) and complete two orbits of Earth at that altitude. Then they have to repeat that accomplishment within 60 days.

While the first flight must demonstrate only the ability to carry five crew members, the winner will have to take at least five people up on the second flight.

And one more thing: They have to do it by Jan. 10, 2010.

Those are just some of the rules that govern who wins the $50 million "America’s Space Prize," an effort by Bigelow Aerospace of North Las Vegas, Nevada, to spur the development of space tourism in low Earth orbit.

No more than 20 percent of the spacecraft’s hardware can be expendable. It must also demonstrate the ability to dock with Bigelow Aerospace’s inflatable space habitat and be able to stay docked in orbit for up to six months.

A key ambition of the Bigelow Aerospace cash reward is to break the monopoly on crew transport to space currently held by Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft. "This is trying to be an alternative to the bad situation that our country is in with Soyuz," in terms of international space station operations, Robert Bigelow, head of Bigelow Aerospace, said in an exclusive interview with Space.com and Space News.

NASA’s no-win situation
NASA is hostage to the Soyuz, Bigelow said.

"Two years ago I felt comfortable because of conversations that we had with the Russians that we could buy all the Soyuz [spacecraft] we want. In the last two years things have changed dramatically," Bigelow said. NASA’s desperate need for the Soyuz following the Columbia accident, Bigelow said, has led the U.S. government to pay what no private-sector company can afford to pay.

NASA, he noted, has no choice. "They’ve got to have the Soyuz, and it’s going to get worse once the space shuttle stops flying," Bigelow said. The last thing a private company can do, Bigelow said, is to compete head-to-head with NASA to buy Soyuz spacecraft. "We can't afford that, so we have to find something indigenous. And of course the Chinese eventually will have their Shenzhou [piloted spacecraft] being offered to the private sector. But that is not going to be for a while."

To spearhead a domestically developed crew transportation vehicle, Bigelow Aerospace is offering the $50 million America’s Space Prize. The award is backed solely by the firm, one of several businesses owned by the well-heeled Bigelow, whose other ventures include Budget Suites of America.

"We had hoped that NASA would be a part of this. But for various reasons they couldn’t be. So instead of us just taking $25 million and them taking $25 million, Bigelow Aerospace is going to take 100 percent of the whole $50 million," he said.

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While the company is willing to fund the full $50 million prize, it is also considering buying an insurance policy, if it can find one that is affordable.

Made in America
Other rules for the prize require that any contestant reside and do business in the United States. Funding or ownership by any government would also disqualify an entrant. Use of government test facilities, however, is permitted.

Potential contestants who contact Bigelow Aerospace will receive a starter package that spells out all rules in more detail, with an explanation of the reasons for each rule.

In addition, early small-scale modules are to be launched and tested in Earth orbit over the coming years, leading to flight of a full-scale model by late 2008 at the earliest, but more likely to occur some time the following year, Bigelow said.

In addition to the $50 million prize, Bigelow said his company also is prepared to offer $200 million in conditional purchase agreements for six flights of a selected vehicle. "It could be somebody who doesn’t win, who comes in late, but we like their architecture better than the winner’s architecture," Bigelow said.

In addition, $800 million in options contracts for 24 flights will be available over a period of about four to 4.5 years, Bigelow said.

"So we have a $1 billion-dollar program between conditional contracts and the options," Bigelow said. There are only two conditions attached to the purchase agreement. One is if the U.S. government imposes legal restrictions that prevent launching privately financed orbital spacecraft.

The other condition covers the possibility that Bigelow Aerospace might not have its space structure in Earth orbit. "We’re giving ourselves four and a half years to make that happen," Bigelow said. In the event that a full-scale orbiting module is not yet in space, a terrestrial facility could be used to demonstrate a spacecraft’s ability to dock to a Bigelow Aerospace orbiting structure, he said.

Ready, willing and able
As for the transportation system to gain orbital access to the company’s commercial space facility, Bigelow noted: "We’re a customer. We’re buying. We’re ready, willing and able to buy these transportation flights from the provider."

Bigelow Aerospace will be hiring astronauts and conducting the training of "space novices," similar to the way they are trained at Russia’s Star City for Soyuz flights.

"We will find facilities, perhaps with some NASA help, that provide a good program equivalent to Star City’s program, without having to send them clear over there," Bigelow said.

Private sector: turf of its own
Bigelow Aerospace opened its doors in April 1999 with the long-range vision of developing an aerospace business that would participate in commercial spaceflight.

A vision statement posted on the firm’s Web site explains that the company is focused on playing a major role "in drastically altering the current restricted environment surrounding private ownership and use of space stations by making habitable space stations affordable for corporate communities."

Bigelow said building an orbital spacecraft to satisfy the rules of the America's Space Prize competition will not be an easy task.

"There is no argument about that. The next five years for everybody — for us, for the contestants — is going to be quite a challenge," Bigelow said.

With President Bush re-elected, his space vision for exploration of the moon, Mars and beyond means that NASA is abandoning low Earth orbit, Bigelow said.

"That’s important, because the private sector has never had any turf of its own in space, except for satellites. What this does is open up the door for opportunities of all different kinds for the private sector."

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