NASA / Bigelow Press Conference Reveals Interesting Details

Robert Bigelow and Lori Garver Credit: NASA

Robert Bigelow and Lori Garver
Credit: NASA

At a press conference held in Bigelow Aerospace headquarters, NASA Deputy administrator Lori Garver and Bigelow founder and chairman Robert Bigelow formally announced the partnership arrangement revealed last week by SpaceNews,  one which had been in the works for nearly 2 years. Under the terms, NASA will pay Bigelow $17.8 million for a two-year test of its BEAM, Bigelow Expanded Activity Module, which will be attached to the International Space Station’s Tranquility Node.

BEAM will be transported to the station by SpaceX on Commercial Re-Supply Mission number 8, scheduled in 2015, and will be packed in a 7′  tube housed in the Dragon spacecraft’s “trunk.”  This marks one of the most significant manifested uses of the Dragon’s unique external cargo capability, one which can be enhanced by an optional 14′ extended version. Once attached to the station, BEAM will be slowly pressurized and expand until it reaches its full dimensions of 13′ x 10′, offering roughly  560 cubic feet of internal space.  Though it will be primarily empty space, the chief purpose of which is to test basic environmental factors over an extended time frame, NASA has speculated that station’s crew may find it one of the most relaxing abodes onboard the packed and somewhat noisy station, perfect even for a cat-nap.  Garver also left open the possibility of extending the BEAM’s presence beyond the two-year time frame if it performs as advertised.

The press conference also offered some insight, including pricing,  into Bigelow’s plans for its BA-330 station module, two of which would be joined to form its proposed Space Station Alpha, the first component of which could launch as early as the end of 2016, depending on the rate of progress in the commercial crew program. Along those lines, Bigelow announced that the transport price to the station, would be $26.25 million aboard a SpaceX Dragon,  or $36.75 million aboard a Boeing CST-100.  The 40% price difference is almost certainly due to the much higher cost of the Boeing’s Atlas V launch vehicle, as compared to the SpaceX Falcon 9.  The gap could become even more pronounced if Congress ultimately removes the large annual subsidy going to United Launch Alliance in the form of the Launch Capability Contract which is currently on the order of nearly $100 million per flight at current rates.  Bigelow has a clear business interest in maintaining two separate sources of transportation to its stations, but assuming the company proceeds, the comparative flight rates should prove very revealing.  For what it is worth,  SpaceX originally announced that for crew carrying purposes, the  Falcon 9 would be “capsule” agnostic,”  offering the same pricing to other customers  as it charged itself, a fact Sierra Nevada might want to taken into account if it still continues to be funded at a reduced level.

Perhaps just as interesting was the pricing associated with station no matter how you get there.  First,  the somewhat boring name of Space Station Alpha could change even more often than that of Joe Robbie Stadium, with full naming rights available for $25 million per year, and half that for just one of the two modules.  Customers, expected to be non space-faring  (until now) national governments,  as well as large corporations,  could lease 1/3 of a module, termed a “block” for $25 million for a nominal flight period of 60 days.

Also noteworthy was NASA’s apparent enthusiasm at the prospect of future developments based on this first step.  Although the agency cannot directly  say it wants to go back to the Moon at the moment, because deep gravity wells are not an acceptable destination along the official “flexible path,”  Bigelow is under no such restriction, and would very much like to use a future version of its plug and play orbital modules to serve a similar function on the lunar surface.  Coming on the heels of the Golden Spike announcement,  it seems increasingly likely that the agency might want to consider just how flexible the path might become with the addition of  expandable habitats.

It should also not go unnoticed that in considering possible alternatives to the current plan, (to the extent there is one)  that added to the Dragon spacecraft’s own 350 cubic feet of pressurized space, the modest BEAM module makes a total availability of 910′ cubic feet.  The Orion capsule by contrast, upon which the U.S. has already spent nearly $7 billion dollars, and is which is continuing to hoover up roughly an additional billion dollars every year, offers a total of pressurized space of 691 cubic feet,  but with a habitable volume of just 316 cubic feet.  The Apollo capsule by comparison was 343 cubic feet of total space within 207 cubic feet of usable space.

While the BEAM offers little more than additional living space at the moment, and the crew version of the Dragon is still in the works, a workable combination of the two could be ready years before the Orion’s first and only scheduled crewed mission, currently slated for 2021. It is safe to assume that given the future prospects for NASA’s budget, which are grim, this and other alternative “paths” may ultimately prove to lead to some very interesting conclusions regarding what is, and what  is not, a sustainable space infrastructure.

Posted in: NASA, Space Stations

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