Tuesday, April 12, 2016

First commercial space station to launch in only four years

Image Credit: Bigelow Aerospace
Bigelow Aerospace partnered with the United Launch Alliance to launch their 330-cubic-meter expandable space habitat—the B330—using ULA's Atlas V rocket in the 2019-2020 time frame.

“We could not be more pleased than to partner with Bigelow Aerospace and reserve a launch slot on our manifest for this revolutionary mission,” Tory Bruno, ULA president and CEO, said in a news release. “This innovative and game-changing advance will dramatically increase opportunities for space research in fields like materials, medicine and biology. And it enables destinations in space for countries, corporations and even individuals far beyond what is available today, effectively democratizing space. We can’t begin to imagine the future potential of affordable real estate in space.”

The announcement is a first-of-its-kind partnership of two commercial space companies—one a launch provider and the other a space habitat company—working to develop human infrastructure in low-Earth orbit without the aid of any government. That isn't to say that the companies don't want to do business with governments.

The B330 is designed to be a completely self-contained space station. But, according to Robert Bigelow, the CEO of Bigelow Aerospace, he would like to see one attached to the International Space Station.

"We are trying to acquire permission from NASA to be able to locate a B330 on [the ISS]," Bigelow said, "If we're able to do that and have [a B330] be there, we are asking, also, that we be given consideration to be able to commercialize time and volume."

Image Credit: Bigelow Aerospace
Bigelow said this would be no different than having a 30-story building and trying to lease a number of floors. He continued the analogy by stating that maybe NASA could be an anchor tenant to this first B330 at the International Space Station.

This module, if attached to ISS, would increase the station's volume by 30 percent. The craft will support research in microgravity including, but not limited to, scientific missions and manufacturing processes. Bigelow also hopes that the module, and other free-flying versions of it, will support space tourism and be able to be used on missions that go beyond LEO to the Moon or Mars.

Transportation to these modules, be it at ISS or elsewhere, will be done by NASA's current crop of commercial crew providers. Bigelow believes that there is enough of a market to support four commercial transportation companies. He cited Boeing's CST-100, SpaceX's Crew Dragon, Sierra Nevada Corporation's Dream Chaser and Blue Origin's yet-to-be-unveiled orbital spacecraft.

The B330 is currently being developed. The companies will work together to develop the business construct, commercial product offerings and marketing plans. Only when the spacecraft design is proven and a market shown to exist will additional habitats be deployed in other locations.