Bigelow Wants Bigger B330 Module, XBASE, Attached to ISS

Bigelow Wants Bigger B330 Module, XBASE, Attached to ISS

Just days after his experimental Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) successfully reached the International Space Station (ISS), Robert Bigelow is calling on NASA to attach a full-sized B330 module to ISS in the next few years.   During a press conference with United Launch Alliance (ULA) President Tory Bruno, Bigelow said that ULA’s Atlas V rocket is the only one that can launch the B330.  The two companies announced a partnership agreement today.

Bigelow is the President and founder of Bigelow Aerospace, which picked up efforts to build expandable modules after NASA cancelled its 1990s-era TransHab program.   It launched two experimental free-flyers on Russian rockets in 2006 (Genesis I) and 2007 (Genesis II).   On Friday, the SpaceX Dragon cargo spacecraft carried the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) to the ISS and it arrived on Sunday.  Once BEAM is installed onto an ISS docking port and slowly expanded, it will be used for tests over two years.  Then it will be detached and burn up in the atmosphere.

It is a precursor to the full-size B330 module that Bigelow is hoping will become a standard for habitats in Earth orbit and beyond. He asserted today that two B330s will be built and ready for launch by 2020. The “330” refers to the module’s usable volume — 330 cubic meters. 

An oft-used Bigelow Aerospace illustration shows two B330s docked together, but that is only one configuration.  Bigelow’s marketing approach today was clearly aimed at convincing NASA to become the anchor tenant on a B330 attached to ISS.  In that configuration, he calls it XBASE — Expandable Bigelow Advanced Station Enhancement.

Today’s press conference announced a partnership between ULA and Bigelow for launching B330 modules, but Bruno and Bigelow clarified that it is meeting of the minds, not a formal contract.  Bigelow called it a “work in process” and Bruno said they are “collaborating together with resources and talent and technology,” not money. “We don’t talk about dollars in investment.  We’ll see as time goes by what this fully encompasses.”  ULA’s contribution now is reserving a slot on its manifest for a B330 launch.

The two companies share a vision of multiple modules in low Earth orbit and beyond, with Bigelow building the modules and ULA launching them.   Bruno said he was excited for ULA to become the “transportation highway” to the destinations Bigelow creates and, with its new ACES upper stage, potentially shuttling between them.

Still, when asked who would pay for the Atlas V launch ULA is reserving for the B330, there was no clear answer.  Bruno said ULA would be pleased to work with NASA if it turns out that NASA is the primary customer, “but there are other opportunities.”   Bigelow demurred entirely, saying it is too early to get into details.  He reiterated what he said in a pre-launch press conference last week in advance of the Dragon launch that he already has customers who want to use the experimental BEAM module and hopes NASA will grant permission for them to do so.   In his view, the next step is for a B330 to be attached to ISS, which he said would increase the volume of the ISS by 30 percent.  He acknowledged that he needs permission from NASA, which will have to coordinate with the other ISS partners, with a “gauntlet of challenges” to navigate.

In response to a question, Bigelow insisted that the first two B330s are capable of independent flight, with their own propulsion systems, avionics and life support systems.  (By comparison, the experimental BEAM is completely reliant on ISS.)  When further asked why he wants to deal with all the challenges involved in working with NASA, he said it is in NASA’s best interests.  By adding a B330 to ISS, NASA could have “seamless” operations to whatever comes after ISS.  The B330 could extend the ISS lifetime or be detached and dock with another module, for example.

Queried about the overall goal of the ULA/Bigelow Aerospace partnership, Bigelow, the millionaire head of Embassy Suites hotels, laughed and said “other than make a lot of money?”   He envisions space tourists, or “amateur astronauts,” as one source of revenue, along with naming opportunities and becoming a “Hudson’s Bay Company” for customers that explore and utilize space.

Speaking more expansively, Bigelow characterized the decade of 2011-2021 as phase one and 2021-2031 as phase
two of a “new space era” where space is accessible to a much larger
number of nations, companies and individuals than today.   Bruno enthused that it would herald the
“democratization” of space where “many people, ordinary people … will go to space because there are jobs in space, because they can go to space to have a better life.”

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