Bigelow Aerospace & ULA Propose a Major Expansion of the International Space Station

Robert Bigelow and ULA's Tory Bruno Pose Before a Model of the B-330

Robert Bigelow and ULA’s Tory Bruno Pose Before a Model of the B-330

On Sunday, the SpaceX CRS-8 Dragon spacecraft arrived at the International Space Station, carrying in its “trunk” the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module or BEAM.

Based on a press conference held today at the 32nd Space Symposium in Colorado Springs however, BEAM may be only the beginning of Bigelow’s presence at ISS, and the future may be coming a lot more quickly than many might have thought.

The purpose of today’s event was to elaborate on a new strategic partnership between ULA and Bigelow which was announced over the weekend.  At the core of that partnership is the fact that Bigelow has chosen ULA’s Atlas V 552 booster to launch its B330 expandable space station modules into low Earth orbit. It is a choice dictated in part by simple geometry. According to company founder Robert Bigelow, even when compacted for launch, the B330 cannot fit into the SpaceX Falcon 9’s payload fairing.

It is the destination and the timing however, which offered the real surprise. Bigelow announced his company will have two of its 330 cubic meter (hence the name B330) expandable space stations ready for launch in 2020, and he very much wants to place one right where SpaceX delivered BEAM, at the International Space Station.

While nothing formal has been decided, and there are number of challenges which must be overcome, including re-enforcing a docking port to which it would be connected, Bigelow is convinced that NASA could not help but to see the benefit in hosting an addition to ISS which would increase its habitable volume by 30%.

Just as important as the additional space however, is the fact that it would offer NASA the opportunity for testing different components, such as life support elements for the agency’s deep space ambitions without inflicting undue burden on the station’s own systems. Economically, the increase in traffic both in terms of personnel and experiments would help to leverage NASA and International Partner investment by sharing costs over wider basis. According to Bigelow, NASA officials have been responsive to proposal, which he sees as a natural extension of the collaboration which went into the BEAM agreement.

Capable of fully independent operation, or disabled to link into ISS power and fluid systems, the B330 could become a permanent fixture on ISS as long as it stays in orbit, or it could be detached after a period of time and then rendezvous with another B330 to form a substantial structure in its own right.

As for the longer term, Bigelow predicts the next decade could see the number of active astronauts, including those in training and on-orbit increase by some 10 to 20 times. They might even count among their number younger “associate astronauts” performing a kind of orbital internship won through years of competition before they reached the adult contractual limit of 21 years.

Behind all this potential are two elemental factors which are in the midst of profound change; access and affordability. Bigelow Aerospace has been working on expandable space stations for 15 years, but much of that time has been a waiting game until commercial astronaut taxi service became available.  At one time the Russian Soyuz was considered the most probable contender, but NASA inadvertently dealt those plans a blow when the retirement of the Space Shuttle and subsequent reliance on Soyuz for all transport to ISS both absorbed available production capacity even as it presented an opportunity for Russia to raise its seat prices.

Now, NASA is coming to the rescue in commissioning both Boeing and SpaceX to deliver astronauts to ISS via its Commercial Crew program, and Bigelow foresees Sierra Nevada and Blue Origin as future providers as well.

It all begins with BEAM however, and even here, the status is changing. As he suggested during a pre-launch press conference for the CRS-8 mission, a number of potential customers have approached Bigelow Aerospace about using BEAM for commercial purposes, and here too, NASA has seemed receptive, provided the module has passed a 6 month testing period.


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1 Comment on "Bigelow Aerospace & ULA Propose a Major Expansion of the International Space Station"

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  1. PK Sink says:

    Great article…you always connect the dots so well. I have no idea which way NASA will jump on this opportunity. Bigelow is pitching it as though he’s doing NASA a big favor by offering it a chance to add a B330 to the Station…and I think that he’s right. Really smart guy…and if he says that space aliens are among us, maybe we should believe him.

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