On Thursday, The Space Show had a very informative, wide-ranging, over two-hour long interview with Robert Bigelow, of Bigelow Aerospace. I'll leave the summarization of the discussion to somebody else, but one interesting detail on which I focused was the magnitude of the launch demand that Bigelow expects to generate.
In year 3 of operations of Bigelow's first structure, his business plan calls for 16 crewed launches (6 - 8 crew apiece) and 4 cargo launches to the structure, or 20 launches total. If we assume that the Dragon will use the 3.6 meter fairing version of Falcon 9 -- with capacity of 20,000 lbs. to LEO, $27 million list price -- and that the cargo flights use roughly the same configuration, that's at least $540 million per annum in business at list prices. Bigelow aptly described this demand as an "unbelievably huge number" in comparison to today's manned spaceflight demand, and helped give context to his opinion that Bigelow's $50 million America's Space Prize is no longer relevant.
(The view from Genesis I.)
Bigelow went on to describe the implications of such an increase in rigidly-scheduled demand. 20 launches per annum is a frequency of about once every 2 weeks. Currently, all U.S. launches can be "bumped" by Department of Defense or NASA requirements. Sometimes, those delays can last many months. Even at SpaceX's facility on Omelek in the Marshall Islands, launches are sometimes scrubbed due to Department of Defense missile tests. Given these constraints, Bigelow suggested that in the next 4 or 5 years, American launch companies would need to secure non-Department of Defense launch facilities where they would control the launch schedule completely. Even though not mentioned by Bigelow, I note that there has been some small discussion about using Johnston Atoll as a private launch facility. Other possibilities include using a mobile sea platform, as Sea Launch uses. Jim Maser, SpaceX's new President, has extensive experience with the mobile sea platform logistics, owing to his past experience as President of Sea Launch.
With crews of 6 - 8 per flight, Bigelow needs to establish a substantial astronaut corps. Since Bigelow will be offering ample opportunities for spaceflight, it seems likely that in short order, NASA will find that its astronaut corps has been picked clean by the company. Bigelow did not give any detail regarding an astronaut corps, but it wouldn't surprise me to see an announcement at the beginning of next year regarding its formation. I would like to see further opinions about what it would take to create and maintain an astronaut corps of this type. It sounds expensive.
The discussion covered a lot of ground, so I recommend listening to the interview in its entirety. I'm thankful that the previously reclusive Bigelow decided to give an interview to The Space Show, and I hope that the experience was positive for him. I'm rooting for his success.