NASA's Lori Garver and Robert Bigelow

NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver with Robert Bigelow and the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), Jan. 16, 2013 in Las Vegas. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Like a lot of revolutionary ideas, it seems crazy at first glance: a space habitat that rides to orbit in a compressed state, and then inflates to full size when it gets there. But NASA worked seriously on the idea, pegging it for a future Mars mission before canceling it in the late 1990s. The program, called TransHab, was snapped up by Las Vegas real estate developer Robert Bigelow at the turn of the millenium and has been in continuous development by his company Bigelow Aerospace, or BA, ever since.

Now the technology is coming full circle with a contract from NASA with BA to provide an inflatable addition to the International Space Station.

This week, Bigelow talked with me about the deal and his vision for the future of space habitats. I filed a report with Popular Mechanics, that was posted online yesterday.

I first started getting to know Bigelow, or Mr. B., as he’s generally known by his employees, back in 2004. SpaceShipOne had just landed after its third and final space flight. I was standing outside the Mojave Air and Space Port media center, which was packed with reporters, including a radio reporter who kept bellowing into a microphone about space firsts and what that extraordinary day meant. It was hard to think clearly in there, and I didn’t want anyone overhearing me as I caught hold of the next big story in commercial space flight.

So began a dance in which I talked Bigelow into showing me the factory he was building in North Las Vegas and news outlets like Reuters and Popular Science into giving me assignments to write about it. A major breakthrough came when the normally guarded Bigelow told me why he was building space habitats. From my March 2005 Popular Science cover story:

“He’s…insatiably curious about spirituality and the nature of the universe, and he possesses an unearthly patience. Las Vegas may be an unlikely incubator for these qualities, but that’s exactly what it was for Bigelow as he grew up. In the 1950s, nuclear explosions at the nearby Nevada Test Site lit his street at night with artificial daylight—casting light on his mortality, as well. In later years, rumors circulated of a secret government program to study a crashed extraterrestrial spaceship and its occupants. And although he never saw anything himself, Bigelow knew people who swore that they had had unexplainable encounters with possible extraterrestrials; his own grandparents even had a UFO experience. He couldn’t guess what it all meant, but he developed a burning desire to find out. What was our place in the universe? Were we alone in it?”
Bigelow’s mission is nothing short of helping humanity join what he sees as a greater galactic community. That purpose, that drive, is what has kept this technology—demonstrably safer and less costly than conventional aluminum habitat designs—alive all these years since NASA first abandoned it and now is embracing it again.