Exploring NASA’s Agreement with Bigelow

The Start of Something Big Credit :  Bigelow / NBC News

The Start of Something Big
Credit : Bigelow / NBC News

On Thursday, May 23 at 1:30 p.m. EDT, NASA Associate Administrator Bill Gerstenmaier and Bigelow Aerospace founder and president Robert Bigelow will hold a “media availability” to discuss the Space Act Agreement between the two organizations. 

The event comes two months after the original document outlining the participation was signed in late March of this year, and almost midway through a 100 day study period described in the SAA as “Gate 1” in which Bigelow will identify common objectives between NASA and the private sector including  companies and potential contributions which could be useful in extending commercial activity from beyond low Earth orbit to the entire region of cis-lunar space.

It is to be followed by a subsequent 120 day “Gate 2” study  in which the company will “assess the intersection of public and private interests” and put forward a set of proposals on how the private sector could work with NASA in LEO, Cis-Lunar space and beyond,  to everyone’s mutual benefit.

It will take quite some time to see if there are any tangible results to this relatively brief, two-phase NASA / Bigelow study,  but it could prove quite interesting,  and possibly even transformative in the long run.  NASA is currently caught in a policy trap between various objectives such as the proposed plan to capture a smallish asteroid and bring it to the vicinity of the Moon for study, versus an oft-repeated  message that the long-term goal is Mars.  Others are interested in building a deep space station at the Earth- Moon L2 point, which may or may not have anything to do with the asteroid capture. This is nothing new , various factions are always, and understandably eager to pursue their own area of interests, and such divisions are only magnified by NASA’s widely dispersed field centers and contractor base, and it is not likely to change. In the words of the Robert Earl Keen classic, “the road goes on forever and the party never ends.” 

What has changed however, is the fact that as a result of the success of  NASA’s COTS and Commercial Resupply programs,  private companies such as  Bigelow Aerospace and Golden Spike are beginning to see a realistic path towards pursuing their own goals, which are not necessarily the same as NASA’s, and are not subject to the sort of dysfunctional pressure that the agency faces.  Quite simply, other players are free to be rational, objective and above all, focused in determining how to proceed. They are also free to fail.

So, although the  Moon has been summarily dismissed as an  objective for official space policy,  it is still the focus of a steadily maturing private exploration architecture which stands the conclusions of the Augustine Committee on its head, and says a return to the Moon, unaffordable under the budget limitations of Project Constellation,  is achievable within the scope of private organizations.  Whether it occurs or not is an entirely different matter,  but with a heavy debt of gratitude to SpaceX and the impending Falcon Heavy, the door is about to be opened.  Sooner or later, someone will step through it, and then someone else.  

Consequently, what is starting out as a series of brief, unfunded studies between NASA and Bigelow could very well establish a framework for future participation between public and private space efforts which occurs within the scope of the existing NASA exploration policy, which some would say borders on selenophobic.  That could all change rather quickly if commercial interests demonstate that they are capable of reaching and operating on the Moon.

Posted in: Moon, NASA, Space Commerce

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