Bigelow Questions Market for Commercial LEO Facilities

Bigelow Questions Market for Commercial LEO Facilities

Billionaire hotel magnate Robert Bigelow announced today creation of Bigelow Space Operations (BSO), a companion to his Bigelow Aerospace company that manufactures expandable space modules.  BSO’s first task is to determine exactly what the market is for commercial facilities in low Earth orbit (LEO) as Bigelow readies two of his full size B330 modules for launch in 2021 — if the market is there.

Bigelow’s modules trace their roots to NASA’s cancelled Transhab project, which was intended to provide crew quarters on the ISS using a module built of soft fabric rather than aluminum.  The fabric can be folded for launch, reducing its volume, and expanded once in space.

Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) attached to the International Space Station after expansion.

Bigelow launched two subscale prototypes —Genesis I and Genesis II — on Russian rockets in 2006 and 2007.  In January 2013, NASA signed a $17.8 million contract with him to add a prototype to the International Space Station (ISS). The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) was launched to the ISS in 2016 on the SpaceX CRS-8 (SpX-8) flight and expanded in May 2016.  NASA agreed last fall to extend the demonstration.  It is using BEAM primarily for storage.  It is small, just 16 cubic meters in volume.

Bigelow wants NASA to attach a full size B330 module to the ISS, a concept he calls XBASE.  The 330 refers to the volume — 330 cubic meters.  The B330 can exist as a stand-alone space station; it does not have to be attached to ISS.  He also has concepts for clusters of B330s in orbit and an even larger module, Olympus, with 2100 cubic meters of volume, for the longer-term future.

At the same time, NASA wants to commercialize low Earth orbit (LEO), ending direct government support for the ISS in 2025 and relying on the commercial sector to build facilities for which NASA can be one of many users.  Acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot said today that by 2030 he expects commercial facilities in LEO to be “live and thriving … a total commercial environment.”

Bigelow is ahead of the pack in developing commercial space facilities, but in a media teleconference today he recounted the ups and downs he has encountered over the past decade that leaves open the question of how much of a market exists.  He wants to find out before he goes much further.

The global economic downturn in 2008 had a significant impact.  Countries that were enthusiastic about having their own human spaceflight programs using Bigelow modules retrenched and only now are coming back to a certain extent.

However, there are other options now.  Bigelow said that China, which plans to have a three-module space station in orbit in the early 2020s, is courting the same customers.   He also sees NASA as a competitor, not because it wants to build another Earth-orbiting space station, but because it wants international partners for its lunar program.   If those countries participate in the lunar program, will they have sufficient resources to pay for using commercial LEO facilities?

That is the question BSO will focus on answering by the end of this year. Bigelow said he has two B330s that will be ready for launch in 2021, but if the market is not there, he will “pause.”

He also announced a partnership agreement between BSO and the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), which manages the U.S. National Laboratory on ISS.  The agreement appears to provide BSO an opportunity to learn from CASIS on flying payloads to a space station, and CASIS the potential to work with BSO in operating future Bigelow facilities.  Bigelow wants CASIS to continue to exist beyond ISS, but does not think that it should be limited to science as it is now.  He does not see science as a market driver.  Nor tourism.  Answering a question about utilization of the BEAM module, he said that “as badly as we’d like to open up a Budweiser still on orbit, I think that will have to be deferred to a private sector-operated station.”

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