The old Sheehan-Majestic Co. warehouse sits at the foot of Mount Sentinel, right where Hellgate Pass opens up into the city. The windowless, cream-colored, decidedly unassuming building laid dormant for years, but now construction vehicles are buzzing around the parking lot, and a sign on the fence proudly proclaims it as the “Future Home of Montec, the Montana Technology Enterprise Center.”
On Wednesday, Sen. Max Baucus (D–Mont.) and a handful of other VIPs showed up for the dedication ceremony. The nerve center of Montana’s effort to bring its economy into the 21st century, Montec is part of a forward-looking effort to replace the state’s traditional dependence on extractive industries with high-tech research and development.
The ceremony marked the opening of about half of the building, but a group of local business officials and University of Montana administrators have their eye on the other half for what could be the centerpiece of Montec: the proposed Northern Rockies Institute for Microgravity Research and Commercialization.
The Institute, which would give Missoula a facility at the cutting edge of research into the commercial potential of space, is still in its preliminary stages, with local officials negotiating with NASA and private funders. If the project comes together, Missoula could become the center for pioneering research into how the fundamental building blocks of life behave in zero gravity.
Behind the microgravity institute is a story of how Montana’s efforts to lure the aerospace industry became intertwined with the ambitions of one of the most fascinating and unusual businessmen in the country. Multimillionaire Robert Bigelow is a hotel mogul, an aerospace innovator, an outspoken NASA critic, and a UFOlogist, among other things. Championing an unusual brand of libertarian space populism, Bigelow seems a nice fit with Montana’s eccentric character. And with his lofty promises that aerospace is the next big ticket to economic prosperity, he might be just what Montana is looking for.
Mike Gold was working for the Montana Department of Commerce in the Racicot administration when his boss encouraged him to reach out to high-tech industries. Gold decided to take a non-traditional approach.
“I was searching for companies that hadn’t been entirely established yet,” Gold says. “I wanted to get in on the ground floor with someone.”
Gold was intrigued by articles he had read in The Wall Street Journal and Space News about a startup company known as Bigelow Aerospace. The company was formed in the spring of 1999 by Robert Bigelow, the millionaire head of the Budget Suites of America hotel chain. Bigelow had long been an armchair space enthusiast, as well as one of the largest private funders of paranormal research in the country. A formidable presence in mainstream business and philanthropy as well as in UFO circles, Bigelow had founded the National Institute for Discovery Science (NIDS), a private X-Files-ish investigative group, in 1995. At the University of Nevada, he has endowed a Chair of “Consciousness Studies,” as well as the Bigelow Physics Building and the Bigelow College of Health Sciences.
Bigelow is a private man who refuses to allow himself to be photographed by the press, but is outspoken about his views. He has been a frequent critic of NASA, chiding them for impeding the efforts of entrepreneurs like himself to realize the commercial potential of space. As he puts it, NASA really stands for “No Access to Space for Americans.” By starting Bigelow Aerospace, he put his money where his mouth is and began a company with the expressed purpose of promoting the commercialization of space.
So when Mike Gold first tried to sell Bigelow on the state of Montana, Bigelow was receptive.
“I’ve had a ranch just outside of Kalispell for about seven or eight years,” Bigelow told the Independent recently. “I go to that ranch all the time and love the area. I love the state and the people. It’s kind of the last refuge of the West. It’s like all that this country has that’s left of a free spirit.”
At the time, state economic development officials were working closely with the Legislature to smooth the way for high-tech business. A special legislative session in May 2000 produced SB4, a bill to update the state’s incentive program for luring aerospace and high-tech industries. By mid-2000 a plan arose for Bigelow Aerospace to take advantage of the SB4 program to build a plant in Missoula that would manufacture space station modules.
The state was going to put up $5 million for the project, according to Dick King, executive director of the Missoula Area Economic Development Corporation (MAEDC). The idea was that the plant would create enough jobs that the investment would more than pay for itself through taxes. The company predicted that the plant would employ 600 people by 2010 with an annual payroll of more than $33 million.
“We had all of the ducks in order at the local level,” says King. “We had the land with the option on it, we had the city, we had all the support we needed to do the deal from the local standpoint.”
The plan hit a snag, however, when Bigelow’s timeframe ran into conflict with state construction laws. Since state money was being allocated for the construction, the state would hold the title on the buildings, and thus state procurement laws had to apply. These laws, which govern the selection of architects and builders and the design process, can delay construction projects for years.
“If it’s a new building on the UM campus, fine, that’s what you’ve got to do,” says King. “But Bigelow’s an entrepreneur. He’s on a timeline. He said he can’t do that.”
As result, Bigelow backed out of the project in August 2000 and decided to build the plant in his company’s home city of Las Vegas. Needless to say, the experience rattled many in Montana’s economic development community.
“The state has to be able to move quickly, not at the pace of state government but at the pace of business, to be able to seize those opportunities,” says Mike Gold, who now works as a lawyer in Washington, D.C., representing, among others, Robert Bigelow.
Following the debacle, a debriefing conference was held in Helena to discuss what went wrong.
“The conclusion was if you’re going to have an incentive program, it had better work,” says King. “You have a very lengthy bureaucratic process for public buildings that no one in the private sector is going to go with. They’re different cultures.”
In its next session the Legislature passed a new bill, SB 432, which changed state procurement laws so that construction timeline problems wouldn’t hinder attracting high-tech businesses in the future. The Bigelow Aerospace experience had an even broader effect on the state’s attitude toward business, says Gold.
“I’d say that certainly the way that deal went down and what we learned from that sparked a lot of positive change that then became manifested in the new office of economic opportunity,” he says.
A second chance
About the same time that the state was reevaluating its laws, Robert Bigelow began dangling a new possibility in front of the Montana business community.
“Mr. Bigelow had talked to me when he had visited here and said, ‘We’re also very interested in a microgravity research and commercialization center,’” says George Bailey, assistant to the vice president for research and development at UM. Bailey was told by Bigelow that the microgravity research center had the potential to create and sustain even more jobs than the manufacturing center. This was also a natural opportunity for a partnership with UM.
“He knew that our goal was creating jobs so that graduates could have a place to work when they leave our institution,” Bailey says.
The proposal for the microgravity institute began taking shape as a joint project of UM, the MAEDC, NASA, and Bigelow Aerospace. Ultimately, the mission of the Institute will be to take current microgravity research and find commercial applications for it, Bailey says. He has already been in touch with several pharmaceutical companies and biotechnology equipment companies about future partnerships. Some of the most exciting research potential in microgravity is in cutting-edge medical research, say the project backers.
“One of the big NASA programs is called crystallography,” says Dick King of MAEDC. “That’s growing a protein crystal, protein being the active agent of life. If you can grow a protein crystal you can understand the molecular structure of a virus, for instance. Many of them don’t grow well on Earth, but they do grow well in space.”
Bigelow says that his company’s role will be to provide a mock-up of the type of life-sized modules they hope to send into space. In return, Bigelow Aerospace expects to forge close relationships with various pharmaceutical companies that would utilize the microgravity center.
“The idea here is that if UM were to have a solid relationship with the pharmaceutical people where they said, ‘Look, we will help you create mock-ups of machinery and mock-ups of an apparatus you would use onboard a space station,’ that could be an interesting inducement to them to get serious about what it is we’re doing,” says Bigelow. “Right now the pharmaceutical industry is quite disillusioned. They have for over 25 years faced a NASA monopoly and that NASA monopoly has been brutal.”
Houston, you have a problem
Bigelow cites two ways in particular that NASA has discouraged space commercialization. First, he says, they charge so much for companies to take part in missions that they make it cost prohibitive to access space. Second, he says that NASA is so unreliable that even when a company can foot the bill they can never count on a definitive launch date.
While Bigelow is a frequent public critic of NASA, he still maintains close ties with the organization. Bigelow Aerospace and NASA are partners in the Missoula microgravity institute, and no one involved said there is any conflict.
“We speak the truth and it’s not something that isn’t felt by people of all kinds outside of NASA and even a lot of people inside NASA,” says Bigelow. “What I’ve been saying isn’t anything that’s terribly different from other peoples’ voices, and it’s true. The general public doesn’t realize that the NASA of today is just a shadow of the kind of capable organization it was 30 years ago.”
Perhaps the most knowledgeable person in Montana when it comes to the NASA space program is Loren Acton. Currently a physics professor at Montana State University in Bozeman, the Lewistown native is a former astronaut. While he agrees that NASA has lost its way, he is more cautious about rushing to commercialize space research.
“After the Apollo program was over, I think we never had a comparably compelling vision of what the nation’s objectives were in space exploration,” Acton says.
Beating the Soviets into space provided the Apollo program with a driving political goal, he says, but then NASA floundered in the 1980s. “The concept of the space shuttle as a very low-cost access to space was an invalid concept on its face,” Acton says. “The particular aspect of it which was the most obviously invalid was that we are not prepared to risk people’s lives. Therefore, the cost of making this whole system adequately safe for human transport has made it impossible to use the shuttle in the cheap mode that had been envisioned, so we were kidding ourselves.”
Whereas Bigelow’s solution to NASA’s woes is to give more access and support to entrepreneurs, Acton is not impressed with commercialization’s track record thus far.
The one successful commercial endeavor, he says, has been communications. The satellite communication industry “was successful because the commercial sector could see in a short time scale that this would be a revolutionary change.”
But Acton says that other industries have met with more obstacles.
“The other aspects of the commercialization of space have not been very successful because there is no obvious and clear profit potential that the giants of industry can see and move ahead on,” Acton says. “There have been a number of efforts which have been fostered by NASA for materials process, for pharmaceutical development activities of one kind or another, pioneering experiments, and they have never shown the kind of payoff as compared to investment.”
Microgravity research like the kind Bigelow proposes for Missoula, says Acton, presents a similar quandary.
“I do agree with the premise that there are potential applications for the microgravity research industry,” he says. However, “the ones that have been tried so far have not been sufficiently improved over what can be done on the ground to justify the complexity and cost.” Acton, who himself participated in crystal growing studies as part of the Spacelab 2 mission in 1985, says, “We’ve grown some crystals in space. It just hasn’t panned out to be a real killer advantage up to this point. On the other hand, we’ve never had a very good place to do it. The space shuttle is a rotten laboratory for that kind of work. It isn’t up there long enough, it isn’t very good microgravity because people are moving around all the time.”
As for another hot topic in recent years—space tourism—Acton does not see much future in it unless someone can find a cure for space adaptation syndrome, a malady that afflicts many newcomers to space.
“It isn’t all that much fun to be sick in space,” he says.
If there is a “Bigelow Thesis,” it is that research like crystal growing and commerce like tourism are possible, they have just been discouraged by a space program paralyzed by bureaucracy. Put the work into the hands of private entrepreneurs like himself, says Bigelow, and it will get done.
Into the wild blue yonder
Robert Bigelow’s interest in Montana is not only business-related. Several years ago he flew to the state to look at a crop circle.
Investigators from the National Institute for Discovery Science have spent time in Montana as well, mostly drawn by the state’s mysterious animal mutilations. Colm Kelleher, director and deputy administrator of NIDS, explains that there have been two sets of mutilation investigations in Montana. One is historical, involving a three-year period in the 1970s that produced more than 60 reports of animal mutilations. NIDS recently obtained copies of law enforcement files, organized the reports into a database, and then hired a statistician from the University of California at Davis to analyze the numbers. What Kelleher found was a statistical correlation between the mutilation incidents and reports of unidentified flying objects (UFOs)in the vicinity of Malmstrom Air Force Base near Great Falls.
The second round began about six months ago when local law enforcement officials in Conrad and surrounding towns contacted NIDS about new mutilation reports. NIDS investigators have been working with local sheriff’s departments over the last several months investigating those deaths.
Ask Bigelow about the animal mutilations in Montana and he can recite the cases in great detail. He talks about mysterious tranquilizers that turned up in one of the cows which are not available outside of the military, and about the precise surgical nature of some of the mutilations that seem to suggest that they were performed someplace other than in a pasture.
“Cattle mutilation is a very interesting phenomenon,” Bigelow says. “It’s one of the few that provides you with a very tangible facility to investigate anything. The UFO topic is a very difficult topic to pursue because the evidence is so lacking, and any standard evidence is very difficult to get.”
NIDS is very concerned with obtaining evidence, which is probably why the group investigates sensational occurrences but rarely comes out with sensational findings.
“All our guys have doctorates,” says Bigelow. “We have a terrific science advisory board, some of the best known names in America.”
In fact, NIDS has an arrangement with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that makes it the sole official recipient of abnormal flight data from pilots and air traffic controllers. All FAA manuals now include NIDS contact information.
It’s a testament to the serious manner in which NIDS conducts its strange business, but also a testament to Bigelow’s personal and professional influence. He says that government officials routinely come to him now for briefings on unexplained phenomena.
“They can’t let it be known how strong their interest is, but I’ve been doing this personally for years,” Bigelow says. “I’m talking about senators and congressmen.”
Bigelow’s powerful political and business connections extend to both sides of his public life. Does he see a connection between the work he does investigating the paranormal and the work he does promoting space commercialization?
Actually, he says, the connection is most evident in his work on microgravity.
NIDS research into UFOs, he says, has given us a glimpse into spacecraft technology far beyond what human beings can conceive of.
“The connection probably is, if humans are really going to access very unique materials that can withstand enormous temperatures and have properties that will eventually be considered to have bizarre performance, today it’s going to be in a microgravity environment where it’s discovered and manufactured,” Bigelow says. “It’s going to not be terrestrially, it’s going to be in zero gravity. It’s in that territory where we’ve just scratched the surface but where we know everything changes.”
According to Colm Kelleher, the FAA abnormal flight data that comes to NIDS often includes reports of crafts appearing to fly at impossible speeds or doing right-angle turns at humanly impossible G-forces.
“Perhaps microgravity manufacturing may be associated with some of these advanced materials that can withstand high performance,” Kelleher says. “In other words, some of these materials may be manufactured off-world.”
The giggle factor
Not surprisingly, Bigelow’s partners in the Missoula microgravity institute have much the same reaction to his paranormal activities as many other high-powered business people and politicians he works with: They find it really interesting.
“When I talk to him about it, it’s a fascinating subject,” says UM’s George Bailey. Bailey grew up on a ranch near Roundup, and he remembers well the cattle mutilations of the 1970s.
“I remember it as a young kid and now I’m a middle-aged man and I’m still really interested in it,” Bailey says. He told Bigelow that “sometime we’re going to have to sit down because I’d like to hear about this stuff. It’s interesting.”
Acton admits that many in the scientific community are interested as well.
“It would be encouraging in some sense if mainstream scientists were permitted, if they chose, to dabble in this area,” Acton says.
“Scientists are terribly arrogant, and therefore the mainstream science by and large doesn’t have anything to do with this because they don’t have as yet anything other than essentially anecdotal stuff to follow up.”
Yet Bigelow can rattle off incident reports and evidence that he says, taken with the testimony of “thousands and thousands of really credible people,” prove that UFOs exist in some form. He estimates that 75 percent of people who work in the aerospace industry are extremely interested in the UFO topic.
“They don’t laugh at the topic. They’ve done their homework,” he says. “They’re scared there still is a giggle factor, there still is a threat to somebody’s job or getting a promotion. There’s still the pecking order where people have to follow the herd, but that’s life.”
Bigelow is not shy about speaking out about such snobbery.
On the NIDS Web site, he has a statement about a Winston cigarette ad that reads: “If aliens are smart enough to travel through space, why do they keep abducting the dumbest people on earth?” In response, Bigelow awarded Winston the 1999 NIDS Golden Fleece award “for stupidity and insensitivity.” He writes, “But I guess this shouldn’t be a surprise, considering this product has been hurting other people for decades.”
Bigelow strikes the same tone of indignation at elite arrogance when he lambasted Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D–Md.) for calling the Russian Space Agency “pimps” for sending tourist Dennis Tito into space.
“Thank God she doesn’t speak for me and a lot of Americans,” Bigelow says. “That’s terribly disgraceful.”
Currently, Missoula’s microgravity institute is still just a proposal, but according to Bailey, everything is moving ahead as scheduled. He will be working closely with NASA, and backers are still in regular contact with Bigelow.
Bigelow thinks that if Montana sticks with aerospace it can entirely remake its economy and its image.
“Colorado several decades ago had no aerospace infrastructure,” Bigelow says. “Yet now they are recognized as a premiere location for all kinds of aerospace activities and companies, and they did that all on their own. The story here is if Montana has the resolve and really has the determination, I think it can do the same thing.”