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May 22, 2012

SpaceX and Bigelow Aerospace in Business for Private Manned Space Station Missions

By Doug Mohney, Contributing Editor

Last week, privately-owned Bigelow Aerospace and SpaceX (News - Alert) announced they were joining together in marketing stays on Bigelow’s private low earth orbit (LEO) space stations to international customers. Three months ago, it would have been considered crazy talk. Today, it looks more viable.

Bigelow has launched a couple of independent inflatable pathfinder/precursor modules into LEO. The company had aggressive plans to put a manned BA 300 habitat into orbit by 2015 onboard a SpaceX rocket, but appeared to put its plans on hold in September 2011 with delays in NASA’s commercial manned spacecraft development program.

Under the announcement, Bigelow and SpaceX will offer a turnkey package with crew riding to orbit in a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft and delivered to a Bigelow habitat.   Bigelow plans to connect two or more BA 330 habitats in orbit to provide national space agencies, companies and universities with what it calls “unparalleled” access to microgravity. A single BA 330 has 330 cubic feet of space and can support up to six people.

The two companies will first start their marketing road show in Asia, with a stop in Japan “shortly after the next launch of the Falcon 9 and Dragon spacecraft.” Bigelow says it has considerable interest from smaller countries seeking space time but can’t afford expensive and/or cumbersome agreements to put astronauts and experiments onboard the International Space Station.

Bigelow’s habitats are based on inflatable habitat technology originally developed by NASA. The structures are lighter and more affordable than traditional metal “cans,” as well as providing considerable living/work volume when deployed in orbit. Engineering demonstrating modules Genesis I and Genesis II, launched in 2006 and 2007 respectively, are still in orbit today.

NASA has looked at adding a Bigelow inflatable module to ISS to add more work/living space for experiments and crew, as well as to prove the technology for use in future projects. However, Bigelow has bigger plans and has shown a moonbase concept.   With SpaceX’s ultimate goal aimed at Mars, no one should be surprised if Bigelow ends up with modules on the Red Planet.

Nearer to earth, Bigelow likely got a shot in the arm from Planetary Resources’ announcement to commercially mine asteroids. If and when Planetary needs to put people into space to explore or (more likely) adjust and fix robotic miners, the private astronauts will need a place to say. Bigelow, founded by Budget Suites of America owner, Robert Bigelow, would no doubt like to provide the hotel rooms for those astronauts.

Edited by Brooke Neuman

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