The main questions people ask about Vegas property billionaire Robert Bigelow and his huge-inflatable-satellite-habitat plans are: can the man really be serious? Sure, fire a couple of test space-balloons into orbit on (relatively) cheap Russian rockets, he's done that. But will he really put up full-size inhabitable models? And will he ever really get people up there?
The answers appear to be in. Yes, Bigelow is serious; yes, he really does reckon to put working balloon space stations into service; and yes he will get the people up there by simply spending an immense amount of money, buying ordinary rockets from the people who supply NASA and the Pentagon.
Flight International reports that Bigelow has been in negotiations with US aerospace colossus Lockheed for months now, and is close to realising a deal. Lockheed is also building the "Orion" spacecraft for NASA, which will be the space agency's new option for manned flights to the proposed US Moon base (and then maybe Mars) when the shuttle fleet stands down.
It is now understood that Bigelow has firm plans to buy a total of 50 Atlas V rockets from Lockheed over the next seven years.
"The capsule has to be determined at this time. Lockheed has a concept for a capsule. Our application is specifically for experienced astronauts and we will have our own training regime," according to a statement by Bigelow.
The Atlas V is not yet "man-rated", or certified to carry humans as opposed to cargo or machinery. A substantial amount of work would be necessary to validate the rocket for this purpose. However, NASA has previously assessed that such a certification could be achieved.
That said, Bigelow's initial launches will not require people on board, so the man-rating of the Atlas V doesn't have to be done at once.
Bigelow has previously offered over three-quarters of a billion dollars for any company which could produce a plan for a man-rated system able to meet his requirements. That would be for eight launches.
There isn't any word yet about how much money Bigelow might give Lockheed for his 50 Atlas lifts, but on a pro rata basis he might be thinking in terms of $5bn odd.
The man certainly seems to be willing to put his money where his mouth is. ®