Bigelow Aerospace to Attach Inflatable Module to ISS in 2015

Bigelow Aerospace to Attach Inflatable Module to ISS in 2015

Bigelow Aerospace and NASA announced today that they have signed a $17.8 million fixed price contract under which one of Bigelow’s expandable modules will be attached to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2015.

Bigelow Aerospace is developing inflatable space modules based on technologies developed by NASA under the Transhab program in the 1990s.  Transhab was envisioned as an inflatable module that could be used as crew quarters on the ISS, replacing the traditional module NASA originally planned.  Concerned about cost overruns, however, Congress terminated Transhab in the 2000 NASA Authorization Act (Sec. 127), while leaving open the possibility of NASA leasing such a module if the private sector developed it.  Bigelow took up the challenge.

Two test Bigelow inflatable structures, Genesis I and Genesis II, were launched on Russian rockets in 2006 and 2007 respectively.   The company is hoping to create and fulfill a market for inflatable modules that could be used for purposes ranging from research in low Earth orbit to bases on the Moon.

The advantage of inflatable structures for use in space is that their mass and volume are relatively small when launched, reducing launch costs.  They inflate once they are in orbit.  The first inflatable space object was NASA’s Echo communications satellite, launched in 1958.

Today’s agreement, announced at the company’s facilities in Las Vegas, NV, will provide an opportunity to test a small version of one of these modules on the ISS.   NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver explained at the press conference that it will be launched on the eighth Commercial Resupply Services (CRS-8) flight NASA already has under contract with SpaceX for launch in May 2015.   The module, called BEAM, for Bigelow Expandable Activities Module, will berth to the ISS Tranquility node and operate in a “closed hatch” mode where ISS crewmembers will enter only occasionally to check on experiments.  Under current plans, BEAM will be jettisoned after two years, but Garver left open the possibility of an extended mission if all is going well.

The $17.8 million NASA contract is quite small compared to what the company itself has invested.   Robert Bigelow, owner of the hotel chain Budget Suites of America and founder and president of Bigelow Aerospace, said at the press conference that he and his wife have invested $250 million in BEAM so far and expect to invest a similar amount between now and the end of 2016.  He said the value of the agreement for himself, personally, and for his company is working with NASA and starting a long term relationship with that agency, rather than financial.

The agreement is for only one module to be attached to ISS.  It will serve as a technology demonstrator to determine how it withstands the radiation, debris, and thermal environment. 

Apart from that technology demonstrator for ISS, Bigelow is planning to launch two full-size “BA 330” models by the end of 2016 that will be available for lease. Those modules have 330 cubic meters of volume, hence their designation.  

Artist Illustration of Bigelow Aerospace’s BA 330:  Credit Bigelow Aerospace

Bigelow is working with both SpaceX and Boeing for providing crew transportation services to and from the BA 330s, which are designed to be habitable.  SpaceX and Boeing are already working with NASA in its Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCAP) program to develop commercial systems to take people to and from low Earth orbit.   Bigelow said the round-trip per-seat price would be $26.25 million on SpaceX’s Dragon or $36.75 million on Boeing’s CST-100.   He added that his company has been waiting for commercial space transportation systems to mature before signing up customers to use his modules.  With SpaceX’s success, this will be the “kickoff” year to find those customers, he said.

NASA’s international partners in the ISS program — Russia, Japan, Canada, and Europe — had to agree to the idea of adding BEAM to the facility.  Garver said that those consultations were part of the reason it took 20 months from when NASA and Bigelow first announced their intention to partner to today’s announcement.


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