Headlines > News > Launch of Genesis I Pathfinder Ushers in a New Era of Commercial Space Development

Launch of Genesis I Pathfinder Ushers in a New Era of Commercial Space Development

Published by Sigurd De Keyser on Sat Jul 15, 2006 2:26 pm
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Bigelow Aerospace Genesis 1
Bigelow Aerospace extracted from early quick look data a low resolution thumbnail image of the Genesis I vehicle which verifies the success of vehicle inflation and solar array deployment. At this point in time, the vehicle is happy and healthy.

By Steve Pellegrino & Chris Reed of Bigelow Aerospace; The privatization of space took a giant leap forward on Wednesday, July 12, 2006 as Bigelow Aerospace of Las Vegas successfully launched its pathfinder mission—Genesis I. The private sector has now entered the space race; it will be actively involved in what was formerly the exclusive domain of large governments and the telecommunications industry. The future is looking better for the private sector to begin a new chapter in the development and business of space.

As the first privately funded space pathfinder module was being launched into space, a tense and expectant silence was the only sound in the Mission Control center of Bigelow Aerospace’s sprawling complex in North Las Vegas. Mr. Bigelow and his entire staff, from engineers to office workers, looked on and listened with bated breath to a jury-rigged communication link with Bigelow staff in Russia.

Live From Russia

As the team at Bigelow Aerospace anxiously watched and listened, the only sound in the Mission Control center was the exuberant voice of the company’s corporate counsel, Mike Gold, describing the launch of the Dnepr rocket carrying Genesis I from on-site at the ISC Kosmotras space and missile complex in Russia. From the Mission Control monitors to the managers, and from the security guards to the housekeepers, all had to hold back their ultimate celebration until word came in that the spacecraft was successfully delivered into orbit.

“You can imagine all the pent-up joy and enthusiasm the team was experiencing, but we had to maintain absolute silence,” said mission Program Manager Eric Haakonstad. “It was frustrating to no end.”

From the technical side, the launch of the Russian Dnepr rocket went off flawlessly. The same cannot be said for the visual transmission of the launch back to mission control. Gold’s screaming commentary saturated the voice line to the point that for the latter stages of the launch, he wasn’t heard from at all. With personnel in Nevada already sitting on pins and needles of nervousness, excited personnel in Russia tipped over the camera beaming back images to Las Vegas. They never tipped it back up.

“What we were seeing in mission control was watching the audience say, ‘Look, I see it!’” said Haakonstad. “It was so exuberant that there was no way for us to get a voice in and say, ‘Hey, fix the camera.’”

Gold, who was on site in Russia, was giving a play-by-play to the crowd at Las Vegas Mission Control. Despite working 20-hour days for the week leading up to the launch and getting little sleep, his exuberance and enthusiasm were infectious. As he described the launch, the people in Mission Control collectively cheered. 14 minutes later, when confirmation arrived of a near perfect delivery and separation, the mood in mission control was exuberant. Mr. Bigelow and Haakonstad, looking at the screens while standing on the floor of Mission Control, were more subdued than the rest of the crowd. Now was the critical juncture of this endeavor: establishing command and control of the spacecraft. For that, they would have to wait.

“We felt fairly confident in Kosmotras and the Dnepr’s ability to get us into space.” said Mr. Bigelow, “and they performed above and beyond expectations, but once the vehicle separated, it was time for us to do our part and all we could do is wait for the chance.”

The Waiting is the Hardest Part

After the initial euphoria of the successful delivery and separation, Mission Control once again grew silent, as the Bigelow Aerospace team waited for the chance to establish contact with the Genesis I. That wait would be a wait of hours, rather than minutes.

While the long lull was expected between the spacecraft’s confirmed separation from rocket 14 minutes after launch to the first communication with Genesis I, that expectation did little to calm the nerves at Mission Control. Little did the mission staff know, but as the expected first contact with contractor SpaceQuest approached, the SpaceQuest facility in Arlington, Virginia, was having some serious problems, and it looked unlikely that they would be able to initiate contact with the Genesis I.

Las Vegas, We Have a Problem

Just as the anticipated time of SpaceQuest’s contact with the Genesis I was approaching, a major storm caused power outages in much of the Arlington area. SpaceQuest, which was to receive the first communication from Genesis I and relay it to Las Vegas, had no power. Now, there was a little more than 30 minutes before SpaceQuest controllers were supposed to hear a cry of life from the Genesis I, but there was no life in the receivers in Virginia.

SpaceQuest engineers were in a bind. They had 30 minutes to find a way to get power and receive first contact from the Genesis I. As SpaceQuest engineers scrambled for a solution, one noticed that there was light in a restaurant across the street, which still miraculously had power. Desperate for power, they got all the extension cords they could find and went across the street to ask for help. The restaurant owner agreed to help and SpaceQuest had power.

“They ran the cords across the road to get power from the restaurant,” Bigelow said. “Cars were driving across the cord as it powered their computers and receivers.”

Even after power was restored, there was another major obstacle to overcome: the automatic system that allowed the antenna to automatically move into position to listen to the spacecraft was not functioning properly due to the power outage. Time was running out, and SpaceQuest engineers now would have to manually steer the antenna themselves to receive the signal.

First Contact

Bigelow Aerospace Mission Control Center in Las Vegas was anxiously awaiting word from SpaceQuest in Virginia, Spacequest was desperately attempting to manually position there antenna to receive Genesis I’s signal and receive it they did—loud and clear. As that message was relayed cross-country to Las Vegas, Mission Control erupted into exuberance.

Although the wait was expected, it didn’t make it any easier. At 2:09 pm PDT—more than six hours after the 7:53 am PDT launch—the Genesis I called home and indicated that not only was the pathfinder demonstration space habitat functioning perfectly, it was being well-fed off its deployed solar panels.

For Bigelow, a dream first drawn out when he started Bigelow Aerospace in 1999 had become reality. While many looked to Bigelow to see his emotion upon the first contact with Genesis I, Bigelow was actually looking to the more than 120 employees that had gathered inside and just outside Mission Control.

“I saw emotion on a lot of folks’ faces. People were just joyful and teary-eyed. We just had a lot of emotions going on,” says Bigelow, who also saw the downward spiral of adrenaline the morning after the launch. “I would characterize it as the day after a battle. You have the walking wounded, those missing in action, and we have people not up here because they were up all night.”

Genesis I Calls Home

“It was unbelievable. Everybody cheered. I can’t believe that this day is finally here and then an unprecedented success! Everyone just wanted to cry,” said Kathy Miller, Contract and Purchasing Manager for Bigelow Aerospace, who has worked for Bigelow for nearly eight years. “Unless you were really here from the beginning and went though the pain and uncertainty, you couldn’t possibly understand. In the end it was all worth it.”

Creating Genesis I was literally like giving birth to a baby for Mr. Bigelow and the employees of Bigelow Aerospace. After eight years of planning, the actual creation and delivery into space took only nine months. As of last October, Genesis I was only a drawing on paper, only a concept. From that time to the July 12 launch, the spacecraft was constructed, tested on the ground and taken to the launch site and mated to its rocket in Russia. What makes this feat all the more incredible is that in a span of only six months while the spacecraft was tested and constructed; a 40,000 sq. ft. addition to the Las Vegas plant—including the entire Mission Control facility—was built.

Few have watched Bigelow Aerospace and its spacecraft grow up like Cindy Nowicki, who joined BA in 2000 when it had just around 10 employees.

“I watched it grow from a very small company. I didn’t think we would get to this point this quickly,” Nowicki said. “It was nice to see Mr. Bigelow fulfill his dream. You could see it and almost see tears come to your eyes, seeing someone do what they set out to do.”

The Future Looks Bright in Space

In the days before the launch, engineers and managers, led by Bigelow himself, tempered any expectations—practically expecting some degree of failure. As later passes confirmed that Genesis I had fully expanded its outer shell and all systems were functioning, the feeling of success began pouring in.

“This is like getting your first at bat in the major league and hitting a Grand Slam” said Mr. Bigelow with obvious pride in the accomplishment of his company. “We have accomplished so much and it’s just the beginning.”

“As well as this was, this was not the expected outcome. This was better than the expected outcome,” says Haakonstad, who still tempers the expectations for the launch of the next space habitat—Genesis II—this fall. “We shouldn’t get spoiled by these scenarios. We’ll need to take the good with a bad, but it does set a high expectation for the next event. We’re at the start of something great here.”

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