I-Team: Las Vegas Inventor's Ideas Take Shape

By Caroline Bleakley , George Knapp , Matt Adams

Published 06/15 2011 02:44PM

Updated 06/16 2011 08:12AM

Copyright 2017 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

LAS VEGAS -- Anyone who struggled to put together model airplanes as a youngster might relate to this story. It's about some grown up kids who are not only making a good living by gluing together highly detailed models but are also helping to clear the way for humans to start living in outer space.

This isn't the first time some of the workers at Bigelow Aerospace have glued together realistic models of spaceships and futuristic craft. Their special effects work were the highlights for several blockbuster movies. What they're doing now is not sci-fi by any means, it's the real deal.

The evil alien spaceships in Independence Day were models, of course, as were the underwater craft in the Abyss and the ships of Pirates of the Caribbean. There's a local connection to these and other movies -- the model factory inside Bigelow Aerospace.

It's like a workshop for space age elves, artists who gave shape to dozens of Hollywood hits, but whose models first envisioned the most extravagant resorts on the Las Vegas Strip.

"The model makers we have here come from the film industry, from the architecture industry. They come from painting and scenic background. They come from set making," said Shawn Buckley, Bigelow Aerospace.

Like most of his co-workers, Buckley worked on model kits as a kid. He and his team of eight still use glue, paint and imagination to create futuristic whiz bang machines.

"Having a job where you get to sit and design and build models all day long and you get to be creative, and there are cool designs, for a lot of these guys it's just a dream come true," said Buckley.

Bigelow Aerospace is the only company in the world which is building space habitats, inflatable modules, that one day soon could be attached to the International Space Station to provide more space in space.

Inside the North Las Vegas plant are detailed models of the three main designs the company will begin producing in the near future and more ambitious longer term plans such as bases on the moon.

It isn't practical for company founder Robert Bigelow to send out life-sized versions of his spacecraft to potential customers, so his in-house model factory cranks out scaled down versions that are a key part of the company's marketing effort, far more memorable than a business card.

"They are better than a PowerPoint presentation. Here's the relative size with an astronaut guy out here. This is 30th scale," said Bigelow.

Individual spacecraft models range from a few inches long to more than 10 feet tall. They are sent to potential customers, including governments and corporations, as a reminder of the possibilities. At the heart of the model factory is a laser contraption. Anything that can be designed in a computer can be cut and shaped to the desired scale with incredible precision.

"You know how if you send a picture over to your printer, it prints it out. Basically we print it out on plastic," said Buckley.

After the laser does its thing, the model makers take over. Drawings become molds, molds become pieces, pieces become models that are painstakingly sanded, glued and assembled -- as many as 300 pieces per model -- then are painted in excruciating detail.

"We'll paint small faces on people. We'll paint small dials all the way down to 10,000ths of an inch," said Buckley.

Just take a look around the place and it's pretty obvious where some of the artists got their inspiration.

"I was 14 when Star Wars came out and it made a big impression on me. The heads are a different angle so I can plug them in and make different poses. And I have a set of arms, a tree of arms, and these can be to make all the astronauts individualistic and not the same cookie cutter guy constantly."

Toy-sized astronauts are more than window dressing. They have directly contributed to the design of the actual spacecraft.

"Spatial awareness, knowing is this crew quarters big enough? Well, you can tell. You put a human being inside there, you are going to have them doing different tasks, performing different things, it gives them size and a spatial relationship. Very important as we design this," said Buckley.

Building model spaceships for a living is a lot of fun. Building models that could shape the first private habitats in space is even more fulfilling.

"Who else is building space habitats? Who else is doing it? It could change the way we view living up in space," Buckley said.

Bigelow Aerospace expects to add more than 1,000 jobs over the next three years once it finishes construction on a massive annex. And there may be spots open for recruits from local set designers and artists.

Copyright 2017 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.