ULA and Bigelow Promise Depot in Lunar Orbit by 2022

ULA and Bigelow Promise Depot in Lunar Orbit by 2022

The United Launch Alliance (ULA) and Bigelow Aerospace announced today that they plan to place a Bigelow B330 expandable module in lunar orbit by the end of 2022 to serve as a “lunar depot” for lunar exploration.

ULA is jointly owned by Lockheed Martin and Boeing.  It builds and launches the Atlas V and Delta IV rockets and plans to replace both of them in the early 2020s with a new rocket named Vulcan.  Initially Vulcan will fly with a Centaur upper stage, as Atlas V does today, but a longer term goal is development of the Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage (ACES) that would serve the traditional role of an upper stage, but also is refuelable and can be used as a space tug, moving spacecraft from one orbit to another.

Bigelow Aerospace, owned by Budget Suites of America millionaire Robert Bigelow, is building expandable modules that can be used in earth orbit, lunar orbit, on the lunar surface and elsewhere.  A small technology demonstrator, the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), is currently attached to the International Space Station (ISS).  NASA announced earlier this month that it plans to extend from two years to several years (depending on what options are exercised) the length of time BEAM will be part of ISS and to allow Bigelow to use it for its own technology demonstrations.

BEAM is a small (16 cubic meters of volume) version of the B330, which, as its name implies, offers 330 cubic meters of volume.  The modules are made of fabric rather than metal so can be folded for launch and expanded once in orbit.  (Often referred to as “inflatable” modules, the correct term is “expandable” as explained by NASA’s Jason Crusan — like a tent, with structure, not a balloon, which collapses when the air is removed).

Bigelow has been trying to convince NASA to allow a full-size B330 to be attached to ISS, a concept he calls XBASE.

Bigelow Aerospace illustration of lunar depot concept. Image credit: Tweet from @BigelowSpace Oct, 17, 2017.

Today’s announcement would go well beyond that.  ULA and Bigelow plan to launch a B330 as a stand-alone space station that would be in low orbit about the Moon, not Earth, and serve as a “lunar depot.”

In a joint press release, the two companies said it would be launched on a Vulcan rocket and outfitted once in Earth orbit. ACES then would be used to move it to lunar orbit.

NASA is trying to win approval to build a Deep Space Gateway (DSG) to be placed in a different type of lunar orbit.  In fact, using high power solar electric propulsion, its orbit could be altered to support a variety of different missions.

The Trump Administration did not include any funding for DSG in the FY2018 budget request, but NASA officials have been promoting it in various conferences and with potential international partners.  NASA describes DSG as a very small facility that would not be permanently occupied.  It would serve as a staging base for crews headed to Mars or to support commercial or international partners that want to conduct operations on the lunar surface.  NASA itself does not have any plans to send people back to the lunar surface — NASA astronauts last walked on the Moon in 1972 — but those plans may change.  The Trump Administration is now reviewing U.S. space policy through the recently revived National Space Council.

Today’s ULA/Bigelow announcement did not specifically address the relationship between the B330 lunar depot and DSG, but Bigelow said the lunar depot “is a strong complement to other plans intended to eventually put people on Mars. It will provide NASA and America with an exciting and financially practical success opportunity that can be accomplished in the short term.”

In a pair of tweets, he went on to indicate that although the companies are funding the concept now, he expects “NASA & the country” to make an investment in it as well.

Public-private partnerships between the government and the private sector did seem to spark considerable interest at the Space Council’s first meeting earlier this month.  As the saying goes, however, the devil is in the details.

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