NASA / Bigelow Arrangement Opens the Door to Bigger Things

Gensesis II in  OrbitCredit: Bigelow Aerospace

Gensesis II in Orbit
Credit: Bigelow Aerospace is reporting that NASA and Bigelow Aerospace have reached an agreement which will allow the North Las Vegas company to fly its proposed BEAM, Bigelow Aerospace Expanded Module  to the International Space Station, where it would to provide extra storage space, similar to that provided by the Permanent Multi Purpose Logistics Module.

Assuming the agreement, which is expected to be formally announced next week comes to fruition, BEAM, which would be similar in size, would join Bigelow’s prototype Genesis I and II modules which are in separate orbits, and mark an important progression in the evolution of that company’s plan to launch an entirely separate private station made up of linked Bigelow modules.   Both the Commercial Resupply and Commercial Crew program were predicated on the concept that NASA and ISS could function as a type of anchor tenant in low Earth orbit, but in anticipation of new ventures such as the Bigelow station which could provide a second destination for the systems developed for NASA by private contractors.  Boeing in particular has stated that the addition of a second destination could help close the business case for the CST-100 capsule.  Both Boeing and SpaceX have previously signed agreements with Bigelow for transportation services for an eventual Bigelow private station,  and the expected NASA /  Bigelow partnership would be a next step and further validation of the CRS /  Commercial Crew approach.

Looking a bit further down the road, the potential launch of a Bigelow BEAM module, particularly if it takes place on a SpaceX Falcon 9 booster could be a harbinger of much greater things to come.  As Mars visionary Robert Zubrin and many others have observed, the addition of an inflatable module similar to that being considered for the station, to the SpaceX Dragon 2.0 capsule  greatly increases the available space and capability of a future Dragon to serve both as a Mars transfer vehicle, and / or surface habitat.  Add in the introduction of Falcon Heavy, and the pieces for an alternate vision of far more affordable (and timely) inner system exploration begin to fall into place.

In that context,  it appears that if the NASA/Bigelow arrangement is a happy one, it could signal the entrance, albeit tentative, of another element of NewSpace infrastructure into the agency’s tool kit the next time it chooses or is forced, to re-evaluate long term plans.

Posted in: NASA, Space Stations

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