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October 04, 2011

Space Station Futures This Week: China Up, Bigelow Aerospace Deflates

By Doug Mohney, Contributing Editor


China launched its first space lab module into orbit this week, the first step on its path to a manned space station around 2020. On the other side of the Pacific, Bigelow Aerospace has abruptly laid off nearly half of its employees.

Tiangong-1 was launched into orbit on a Long March 2-F T1 rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center on September 29 at 9:16 pm local time. Xinghua News Agency reports the module successfully entered into a 350 kilometer orbit and deployed its solar panels. The space lab module will serve as an in-orbit rendezvous and docking target and simplified experiment/living space area for astronauts. 

China will next launch the unmanned Shenzhou VIII spacecraft to rendezvous and dock with Tiangong-1 in November, followed by a pair of manned docking missions.   Mastering in-orbit rendezvous and docking is one of the key steps in building large orbital platforms and missions beyond low earth orbit (LEO) . Ultimately, China plans to have a large space station in LEO and conduct a manned mission to the moon after conducting a series of building block flights to gain spaceflight experience.

Bigelow Aerospace laid off “some 40” of its 90 employees on September 29, reports Space News. The company now has “fifty plus” engineers, managers, and support staff, allowing it to continue developing and ultimately deploying its BA 330 six person inflatable space station modules. Layoffs affected nearly all of its machinists and most of the workers retained are associated with Boeing's (News - Alert) bid to build its CST-100 commercial space capsule to service the International Space Station (ISS) and future Bigelow space stations.

It is not clear how Bigelow's layoffs will affect the company's agreements with Dubai and the UAE to establish a commercial space flight program. In January 2011, Bigelow and The Emirates Institution for Advanced Science and Technology (EIAST) signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) and the company boasted it had several agreements with nations for on-orbit time-sharing at a future Bigelow facility.

In an email sent to Space News (News - Alert), Bigelow Aerospace’s director of Washington operations and business growth Mike Gold attributes the layoffs to a “perfect storm of events,” including an anticipated delay in NASA's commercial crew (CCDeV) research and development efforts.   Bigelow had hoped America would be back in the human spaceflight business by 2014 or 2014, but the company believes it is going to take much longer.

Other projects and companies which may be affected are Bigelow's proposal to demonstrate an inflatable module on the International Space Station (ISS) and a SpaceX (News - Alert) launch for Bigelow in 2014. Bigelow had reserved a Falcon 9 launch from Cape Canaveral, but SpaceX will most likely be able to offer the launch opportunity to someone else.




Doug Mohney is a contributing editor for TMCnet and a 20-year veteran of the ICT space. To read more of his articles, please visit columnist page.

Edited by Jennifer Russell



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