Robert Bigelow is obsessed with space. In the ‘90s, the wealthy real estate developer even launched a research institute called the National Institute for Discovery Science to study paranormal phenomenon and fringe sciences like ufology. Bigelow is convinced that aliens exist, and are even here among us.
“You don’t have to go anywhere, it’s right under people’s noses,” he cryptically tells 60 Minutes in a segment that aired Sunday.
These days it seems Bigelow’s final frontier obsession has shifted from discovering aliens here on Earth to getting humans out into space. The Nevada tycoon’s space company, Bigelow Aerospace, has partnered with NASA to develop expandable spacecraft. The lightweight structure is a reboot of an old NASA technology that was abandoned in the early 2000s due to a lack of funding. As opposed to space stations, expandable spacecraft can inflate in orbit, allowing humans new environments in which to live and work in zero gravity.
60 Minutes caught up with Bigelow last year at NASA mission control in Houston to watch the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM, expand in space for the first time. After investing 300 million dollars and sixteen years of work, this was the moment of truth.
It took two tries over two days, but in the end, the mission was successful and the inflatable room is now being used and studied by astronauts living at the International Space Station.
BEAM is really just the tip of the iceberg for Bigelow Aerospace, who envision inflatable technology as a major player in the future of space activity. At their headquarters in Las Vegas, Bigelow gave 60 Minutes a tour of the Olympus, what he calls a “mansion for the skies.”
Housed in an 80-foot-tall warehouse, the structure is so large that a rocket powerful enough to launch it into space doesn’t even exist yet. But the idea is there, and Bigelow says the technology can be used for anything a client desires — an orbiting hotel, a hospital, or an inflatable research facility, for example.
He also showed 60 Minutes the B330, a smaller structure that Bigelow says could function as a space station. “It can function as a standalone destination because it has all the facilities that it would take to keep people alive,” he says.
Bigelow intends to market the B330 to countries looking to get into space with an affordable model.
Much like Richard Branson or Elon Musk, Bigelow believes that the future of space exploration is in the hands of private industry. “NASA and government still has a role because it is still in a sort of embryonic stage. And there will come a time when it’s not necessary at all. And the commercial world will absolutely be the leader for everything in space,” he says.
With Elon Musk’s keen interest in building more powerful rocket technology, Bigelow’s gigantic, inflatable space hotel isn’t out of the question.