With the launch of SpaceX's much-delayed but successful Falcon 9 rocket last week, there's been renewed attention given to private space efforts. SpaceX and Bigelow are two of the most prominent private companies working in the field, and given the Obama administration's encouragement of private space efforts, you might hear those two names as often as NASA.
The idea here is that private, commercial companies can be run more efficiently than NASA, which is a massive and expensive governmental organization. The Obama administration is banking on this, and is investing in companies like SpaceX.
SpaceX was founded in 2002, and is run by Elon Musk, probably best known for co-creating PayPal and Tesla Motors. SpaceX is perhaps the most prominent private, commercial aerospace company out there; the company has been contracted by NASA to provide lift to the International Space Station. The launch of the Falcon 9 rocket on Friday is singularly impressive, despite several delays and a few hiccups. Says Kit Eaton of Fast Company:
Despite several technical glitches (an uncommanded roll of the rocket's second stage, and incomplete parachute deployment and resulting impact damage to the first stage) the dummy payload was pushed into almost precisely the required orbit--demonstrating that a small private corporation can now successfully rival the industrial-military complex in being able to loft satellites into space.
The Falcon 9 rocket might actually be used by Bigelow Aerospace for that company's inflatable space stations (yes, you read that right).
The New York Times has a profile of Bigelow Aerospace, which was founded in 1998 by Robert Bigelow (the multi-millionaire owner of the Budget Suites hotel chain), that sheds some light on the mysterious company. (Their factory in the Nevada desert is vigorously patrolled, and the CEO has expressed a long-time interest in UFOs.) Bigelow isn't funded by the government, but instead aims to launch its inflatable space stations and allow other sovereign nations to rent time on them for their own projects. For countries with smaller aerospace budgets, Bigelow's solution could be the only way to get into space.
Inflatable space stations are not a new idea; Bigelow actually licensed some of the tech from an old NASA program. It was abandoned by NASA due to some of the inherent problems of an inflatable craft, namely that micro-meteorites had a tendency to pop the hull.
But Bigelow has innovated and developed the tech much further. While it still uses the original idea of an airtight "bladder" with Kevlar straps, it now uses "alternating layers of aluminized fabric and foam [which] absorb and disperse the impacts of micrometeoroids, providing better protection than metal structures." Bigelow will attempt launch in 2014, using the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.