A Las Vegas Billionaire Plans to Build a Real Estate Empire in Space

By Adam Higginbotham

Robert Bigelow with a rendering of Station Alpha

Photograph By Michael Friberg

Robert Bigelow was no more than 9 years old when he heard his first atom bomb explosion. He was upstairs in his bedroom, in a two-story brick house in Las Vegas. There was a low rumble in the early hours of the morning; a bright flash seared the horizon. “All of a sudden,” Bigelow remembers, “it lights up like daytime.”

After that, there were dozens more explosions, out on the Nevada National Security Site just 75 miles away in the Mojave Desert. During the day, he and his classmates at Highland Elementary School were often sent out into the playground to watch as mushroom clouds roiled 40,000 feet into the sky.

The atomic tests were Bigelow’s first encounter with the wonders of science. As he grew up in the Las Vegas of the early ’50s — then still a small town — foretastes of the Space Age transfixed him: exotic jet planes screaming overhead from Nellis Air Force Base and stories of UFO sightings recounted by friends and family. At 12, Bigelow decided that his future lay in space travel, despite his limitations. “I hated algebra,” he says. “I knew I was no good at it.” So he resolved to choose a career that would make him rich enough that, one day, he could hire the scientific expertise required to launch his own space program. Until then, he would tell no one — not even his wife — about his ultimate goal. It took more than 40 years.

At 68, Bigelow is courtly and reserved; tall, thin and vulpine, with a thick head of silver and black hair swept back from his forehead and a crescent-shaped moustache trimmed around the corners of his mouth. His office, on the second floor of a taupe-colored mock Tudor mansion in suburban Las Vegas, is filled with bric-a-brac and gee-gaws. The leather top of his wooden desk is covered almost entirely by a dozen or more thin piles of documents, arranged into neat rows; in the space that remains, there are two telephones, a desktop calculator, and a green marble pen set, but no computer. “Oh,” he says mildly, “I don’t find the need.”

It’s left to a pair of small but painstakingly detailed models, crowded into a corner by the clutter, to suggest where Bigelow Aerospace, founded in 1999, might be going. These are the designs for Bigelow’s space station modules, the BA 330 and the Olympus, intended for use in low earth orbit and beyond as the first independently owned destinations in space. The modules will be far larger than the living quarters so far used in orbit. The exterior walls of the biggest single module of the International Space Station, the Japanese-built Kibo, enclose some 150 cubic meters, or about half of a squash court. The BA 330, by comparision, has the same volume as a small three-bedroom house — and the Olympus, at 2,250 cubic meters, would be large enough to contain the entirety of the ISS, twice over. “It could be a hospital, a dormitory, a warehouse ... a spacecraft carrier,” Bigelow says.

Unlike traditional spacecraft and space stations, which are restricted in size by the outer dimensions of the rockets used to deliver them into orbit, Bigelow’s vessels are inflatable. Using the same principle as a football or a car tire, these “expandable habitats” are housed within an inner airtight bladder surrounded by a protective cocoon built from layers of foam and bullet-resistant Vectran fabric; in the center is a metal core containing electronics and equipment. The soft envelope of the habitat is folded tightly into the trunk of a rocket for launch and then released on arrival in orbit, where it’s inflated with a breathable atmosphere, taking the shape of a giant watermelon. Internal pressure then makes the hull rigid to the touch, and the layers of protective material — up to 40 inches thick — make it safer than conventional aluminum modules yet, by volume, around 50 percent cheaper to launch. So far, Bigelow has spent a quarter of a billion dollars on the project, all of it from his own pocket.

Fifteen years ago, Robert Bigelow’s ideas might have seemed unlikely to get further than the pages of a glossy prospectus, and all the more improbable when publicized as dreams of “hotels in space.” But now he has both the tested hardware and the contracts to back his ambition. He’s had two prototype habitats in orbit since 2007, launched from Russia on repurposed SS-18 “Dnepr” ICBMs. At the beginning of this year, he signed a $17.8 million deal with NASA to provide another for use on the ISS — the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM — to evaluate the technology for use as an astronaut habitat; and, at the end of last month, the agency selected Bigelow Aerospace as a partner to investigate commercial opportunities in space beyond low earth orbit.

Out there, Bigelow says, there are plenty of ways to make money — for example, mining the rare element Helium 3 from the surface of the moon — which will be feasible only with the facilities for living, working, and storage made possible by his inflatable technology. “I think expandable systems hold the key,” he says. By the end of 2016, he expects to have two BA 330 modules docked in orbit, to form the world’s first privately owned space station, Station Alpha. “Our long-term goal as a company is to have a lunar base that might be a modest size, initially, in somewhere around 2023.”

Although he’ll be quite happy to sell habitats outright to his customers, he points out that for NASA — or the agencies of any other newly budget-conscious nations with ambitions beyond earth’s atmosphere — leasing is by far the more affordable option. For only $51.25 million, Bigelow’s sales brochure suggests, a client can travel to the Alpha Station and enjoy dominion over 110 cubic meters for 60 days.

“The main thing is trying to save them a lot of money on good quality hardware,” he says. Bigelow’s intention is to become the first full-service landlord in space. “Bring your clothes and your money. We provide everything else.”

Before the creation of his aerospace company, Robert Bigelow was known locally as the idiosyncratic tycoon who had made his money from Budget Suites of America. The chain of long-stay motels — laundry, cable TV, and swimming pool included, slogan: “It’s as suite as it gets” — often provides accommodation for temporary workers in Nevada, Arizona, and Texas. Budget Suites began with a single outpost in Las Vegas in 1987. But the foundation of his empire as a landlord — recently estimated to be worth $700 million — goes back much further.

Bigelow first chose a career in real estate because it was how his father, Robert L. Bigelow, a successful broker, made his living. In 1962 he enrolled at the University of Reno to study banking and real estate, but his father didn’t live to see him graduate: At the age of 41, he was killed in a light plane crash in California. His son finally graduated from Arizona State University in 1967 and spent nine months back in Las Vegas trying to make it as a real estate agent, without much success. Then, at 20, with a new wife and a baby to support, Bigelow borrowed $20,000 from a hard money lender. “South of loan sharking but north of traditional banking,” he explains. “It was at 10 percent interest, and 10 points.”

He intended to use the cash to buy apartments to rent out, but property he could afford proved scarce. He watched his $20,000 dwindle until, with $14,000 left, in late 1968, he found a house with four apartments behind it. He did the cleaning and painting himself, and rented the units out on weekly terms. Bigelow had absorbed the principles of managing rentals from his grandfather, who had converted a single-story barn next-door to his house into a cluster of small apartments. “I learned, ‘You’d better be there to show it; you’d better be there to collect the rent, and you’d better have something that works and is clean.’ And then it didn’t have to be fancy, so long as it was reasonable,” Bigelow says. “And that was very important.”

In a city better known for monumental hotel developments and Babylonian excess, this no-frills formula served Bigelow well. Although he lacked cash, he quickly acquired new rental properties all over Las Vegas. “I caught on to how to talk to sellers and convince them to sell to me on sweat equity,” he says. “Little or no money down. The most extreme example was, I bought a couple of buildings for $140,000, and my down payment was 10 bucks.” By 1970 he’d amassed $1 million in assets and raised the money to begin his first construction project, a 40-room apartment complex built on the site of his childhood home.

For the next 30 years, he kept buying and building in other sprawling Southwestern towns: Phoenix, Dallas, Fort Worth, San Antonio. The privately held Budget Suites chain, which put a recognizable brand on his expanding inventory of short-term-let apartments, put Bigelow on the path to billionaire status. He’s lost track now, but thinks in total he’s built 15,000 units, and purchased another 8,000. For years, he held on to almost everything he bought, but would eventually unload much of his housing stock in the boom years immediately before the 2008 crash. “People just really wanted to throw money away,” he says. “So that was lucky.”

By the early ’90s, Bigelow had amassed a fortune large enough to dabble in philanthropy, and began funneling his money into extracurricular, extraterrestrial interests. Of all the UFO stories he heard as a boy, Bigelow recounts one in particular that had a profound effect on him. One night in May 1947, his maternal grandparents were driving down the remote Kyle Canyon highway, returning to Las Vegas after a trip to the mountains, when they saw in the sky ahead something they thought was an airplane on fire. But as it drew closer, they realized it was a huge and unidentifiable oval object, glowing bright red; when the terrified couple pulled over to the side of the road, it bore down on them, finally filling their field of vision, before at the last second executing an abrupt 90-degree turn and disappearing. Bigelow heard about the incident years later, from his grandmother; his grandfather never liked to talk about what he’d seen. “He was still bothered by it,” he says, “because they both thought they were going to die that night.”

The story kindled an interest in UFOs and unexplained phenomena that Bigelow has pursued ever since. In 1995 he set up the National Institute for Discovery Science, a team of scientists and investigators, including former FBI agents, dedicated to conducting research into alien encounters and out-of-body experiences. He’s spent tens of millions of dollars gathering evidence “the hard way,” he says. “Painstaking effort, doing all kinds of research.” Bigelow frequently accompanied the NIDS teams on their investigations, flying with them to incident scenes on his private jet; he has personally conducted interviews with 235 different witnesses to paranormal events. “I’ve never had so much fun,” he says. As for his own encounters, he will only concede, “Yes. I’ve had many anomalous experiences ... that I want to keep private. I don’t get into discussing those.”

In 1996, Bigelow bought a 480-acre ranch in Utah from a family who had reported experiencing a frightening range of paranormal incidents, including cattle mutilations, unexplained lights in the sky, and objects that moved on their own. Bigelow now maintains this as what he calls a “living laboratory,” with a perimeter patrolled around the clock by armed guards. As an example of the kind of work done there, he produces two 8 x 10 color photographs of a child’s ball and jacks left unattended on a kitchen table at the ranch. The second picture appears to show that, in the few minutes between shots, when the room was empty, the items have subtly changed position. “We call this the jacks experiment,” he says. “Really amazing.”

In 1997, Bigelow provided $3.7 million to the University of Nevada at Las Vegas to start a Consciousness Studies program with the aim, he says, of establishing “whether there is a survival of your consciousness beyond your bodily death.”

Today, the FAA directs all new reports of UFO sightings to another Bigelow-funded organization, Bigelow Aerospace Advanced Space Studies, of which he is operating manager. Bigelow is unequivocal about the evidence he’s accumulated over the years: He’s convinced of the existence of extraterrestrial life. “I have no doubt,” he says. “Zero doubt.”

In 1999, Robert Bigelow turned 55, and decided that the time was finally right for his long-simmering ambitions in space travel to be addressed in earnest. “I had some money to work with, and I felt that the clock had already ticked along quite a ways, and if I were gonna do something, I’d better fish or cut bait.”

Bigelow had already spent a couple of years casting around for a promising aerospace business when he stumbled upon a magazine story about TransHab, an experimental NASA program developed for manned missions to Mars. One of the principal problems of these expeditions would be sending astronauts out with enough supplies and living space to sustain them on a round trip that might take years; the soft-walled, inflatable crew modules of TransHab were designed to be used as accommodation during the flight out, and then on the surface of the planet as a Martian base. Arranged vertically over three separate levels, and including a kitchenette, dining room, and gym, early TransHab internal layouts more closely resembled a conventional house than a spacecraft module. “And I thought, ‘Wow! What a cool idea! This really makes so much sense,’ ” Bigelow says.

Congress, however, did not agree, and was already moving to cancel funding for the program when Bigelow called to arrange a visit to the TransHab team at Johnson Space Center. NASA administrator Daniel Goldin suggested rescuing the technology by offering it for development to a consortium of aerospace companies, including Mitsubishi, plus Bigelow, who attended meetings as an independent investor. “I had no employees at that time. I was just there as me,” he says. When the corporations proved reluctant to put their own money into the program, the deal collapsed. But Bigelow was less interested in being a cost-plus contractor of the old school than in owning a technology he believed represented the future of space travel. So he decided to pursue the expandable habitat technology alone, with or without NASA’s permission. He went back to Nevada and, in April 1999, quietly formed a new company: Bigelow Aerospace. Then he bought 50 acres of land in an industrial park in North Las Vegas, and set a handful of engineers to work on figuring out how to build an inflatable house that could fly in space.

But in 2002, NASA finally canceled the TransHab project, and Bigelow applied to license the technology, in exchange for an initial $400,000 fee and a commitment for a far more significant sum — what he now says was “tens of millions” of dollars — into a development program. Under the terms of the agreement, Bigelow was able to bring many members of the original TransHab team to Las Vegas, including William Schneider, the veteran engineer, by that time already retired from NASA to teach, who had overseen the agency’s project from the start. The first prototype habitat, Genesis I, was successfully launched into orbit aboard a repurposed Russian ICBM in July 2006; Genesis II followed a year later. Bigelow was shocked. “I was totally prepared for abject failure.”

Although he has no training in science or engineering, Bigelow insists on participating in every stage of development, from overall concepts to the smallest component parts. Of the 15 patents the company now holds in expandable habitats, 11, from the design for the external meteoroid and debris shield to an internal truss, are in Bigelow’s own name. “I am not an armchair president of Bigelow Aerospace,” he says. Today, Bigelow spends roughly 70 percent of his time at the aerospace plant in North Las Vegas. He’s currently completing a huge expansion of the facility, which now covers almost half a million square feet. One morning in March, electricians are at work in the steel skeleton of Bigelow’s new office there, on a mezzanine overlooking the factory floor, which opens out into a 12-story tower where vertical assembly of the habitats will take place. The outside of the tower bears the corporate logo, visible from several blocks away, the contrail of a rocket forming the “I” in the CEO’s name. But within the razor-wire perimeter of the plant, one more distinctive icon is also visible. High up on the corners of the assembly buildings, and on the shoulder patches of the armed guards who patrol them, are black logos depicting the bulbous heads of creatures with saucer eyes: the popular image of an extraterrestrial visitor. As he escorts me back to the main gate, I ask a security guard what these signify. “It’s a Mr. Bigelow thing,” he says.

Bigelow’s business model for his new venture has always been simply to export his terrestrial experience into space, creating multi-use rental buildings containing, for example, hotels to accommodate tourists or scientific laboratories for corporations and even countries without space programs. “It’s just real estate in a different location. So you can sell these space buildings; you can lease these space buildings; the person that you lease them to can sublet them,” Bigelow says. “You just better be sure that you have a way of getting back and forth to it. Otherwise, you’re really screwed.”

After the launch of the two Genesis prototypes, Bigelow’s aggressive development program came to a halt as he waited for the rest of the commercial space industry to provide a viable way to deliver his habitats — and crews to run them — into space. In 2004 he offered up $50 million for America’s Space Prize, which would go to the first company that could launch a vehicle capable of successfully transferring a crew to one of his habitats in orbit. But the five-year deadline came and went without anyone making a serious attempt to claim it. The recession hardly helped, and for a while Bigelow undertook layoffs and a scheme of “furlough Fridays.”

Following January’s NASA deal, and in preparation to begin production of the BA 330 module, Bigelow is hiring again. The BEAM module is scheduled for delivery to the ISS aboard a SpaceX Dragon rocket in 2015. And while the company collaborates with Boeing on the CST-100 crew capsule, designed to deliver astronauts to the ISS, Elon Musk also plans to have a manned rocket flying in two years’ time. “Now there’s a lot more credible vehicles out there,” says Jay Ingham, Bigelow’s vice president for assembly and engineering. “They’re not done yet. But between Boeing and SpaceX, one of these guys is going to succeed in the very near future.”

William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations, says he chose Bigelow as the agency’s lead in investigating commercial opportunities beyond low earth orbit precisely because of his independence and recent arrival in the field. “I wanted to pick someone that I thought would have a broader exploration focus, someone that I thought would be respected, had a good business sense, and could look much broader than any particular product line,” he says. “He’s been trying to do things on his own.”

And Bigelow’s fellow spaceflight entrepreneurs recognize that, while they have been working on the means to eventually take paying passengers into orbit, he’s the only one to have built a potential destination to visit once they get there. Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson says he’s already considering Bigelow’s multiple-use orbiting platform as part of his space tourism business. “We haven’t developed our own hotels,” Branson says. “We would be much more likely to work with Bigelow in sending people to his. We’d be delighted to one day take people there.”

If the company fulfills its current plans, Bigelow Aerospace will be managing its first property on the moon within a decade. By then, Bigelow will be 79. Even at that age, he still fully expects to be running the company that bears his name. “I do. I definitely expect to be. The rocking chair isn’t for me,” he says.

Before that, he’d also like to make sure he gets into space himself. He thinks he’s fit enough; he’d be happy to test himself against whatever training regime was necessary. “I have kind of secretly wanted to,” he says. “But in a serious mission, not a stunt or a very expensive ride.”


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