COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo.—Bigelow Aerospace’s expandable space habitat just arrived at the International Space Station, but the company is already thinking about the next steps: flying even larger inflatable habitats into space to be used for research and even space hotels.
The company announced at a conference here Monday that starting in 2020 the United Launch Alliance, the joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, would deliver the habitats to space, where they would orbit the Earth more than a couple hundred miles high.
The deal was heralded as a significant step toward commercializing space and creating a viable self-sustaining economy where businesses could thrive without being propped up by government. The companies said that the deal marked the “first-ever commercial partnership between a launch provider and a habitat provider."
New industries would proliferate, predicted Robert Bigelow, founder of Bigelow Aerospace, and "help pay for the future pursuit of eventual lunar enterprises."
On Friday, SpaceX ferried a smaller Bigelow habitat to the space station under its contract to resupply the station with cargo and science experiments. The module, made of a Kevlar-like substance, is scheduled to soon be attached to the station, and tested to see how it fares against the heat, radiation and debris floating around in space.
Astronauts will enter that habitat, called the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM, a few times a year to inspect how it is doing and take measurements. About the size of a small bedroom, the BEAM would stay on the station for two years, before being jettisoned.
In a news conference at the Space Symposium here, Bigelow said he hopes that another, larger habitat the company is developing could also fly to the station. Called the B330, it is 20 times larger than the BEAM, he said, and could increase the station’s volume by 30 percent.
Bigelow hopes that eventually his space habitats could provide another destination in low Earth orbit besides the space station. There are several countries with human space programs that don’t get to fly to the space station as much as they would like. And he said there is also a demand from companies and research institutions wanting to test products and conduct science in space’s microgravity environment.
The habitats could also attract tourists, and create opportunities for naming and leasing rights, and all sorts of commercial ventures.
"We would love to see Disney have a Disney space station," Bigelow said. "Wouldn’t that be cool?"
Tory Bruno, ULA’s chief executive, added that Bigelow’s habitats would create “destinations in space for countries, corporations and even individuals far beyond what is available today, effectively democratizing space.”
The B330 is "bigger than my first apartment," Bruno quipped.
Bigelow and Bruno declined to offer specifics of what the deal entailed or who would finance the launch or launches. "It's premature to talk in specifics about these kinds of things," Bigelow said.
On Friday, ULA announced that it was delaying indefinitely its next national security launch as it investigates a problem with its Atlas V rocket. The rocket engine cut out six seconds earlier than expected on a launch last month to fly cargo to the space station. The spacecraft carrying the cargo made it to the station, however, but the company said it wanted to make sure any problems are addressed before launching again.
NASA has been interested in inflatable habitats for years and even developed its own technology. But it was forced by Congress to drop the program. Bigelow, the wealthy founder of Budget Suites of America, read about the NASA program and thought, “Oh, my God, this is fabulous,” he said in an interview. “I just became enchanted.”
He purchased the rights to the technology from NASA, and since then he said he has invested $290 million of his own money into the company in an effort to make space more accessible.
NASA has said expandable habitats could make it more efficient and cost effective for astronauts to get to deep space, and even Mars, because the modules can be compacted and take up less space than large, metal sections of a space station.
Bigelow said the habitats could even be outfitted so that they could land, meaning they could be used as a base on the moon.