Aerospace Company to Launch Private, Inflatable Space Stations3 min read

Bigelow Aerospace announced plans for sending soft-bodied modules that are compressed during launch but expand once they reach space.

igelow Aerospace private space station |
Bigelow Aerospace

A company that builds big, inflatable space habitats has launched a new venture that will market and operate these structures in Earth orbit and beyond.

Entrepreneur Robert Bigelow announced February 20 the creation of Bigelow Space Operations (BSO), which will manage the private space stations being built by his Nevada-based manufacturing company, Bigelow Aerospace.

BSO will also conduct in-depth market research, to gauge the demand for these space stations and identify the most promising customer bases. [Bigelow Aerospace’s Inflatable Space Station Idea (Photos)]

“We intend to spend millions of dollars this year in drilling down, hopefully, to a conclusion one way or the other as to what the global market is going to look like,” Bigelow said in a teleconference with reporters today. “We expect to finish that investigation by the end of this year.”

BSO was officially established last year, but it started hiring only last month, Bigelow said. The company has already filled a number of key posts, including chief operating officer and general counsel, and intends to hire three dozen to four dozen people this year. Eventually, 400 to 500 people will probably work for BSO, the entrepreneur said.

Bigelow’s space-station plans are based on soft-bodied modules that launch in a compressed configuration but expand greatly once they reach space. Such inflatables offer much more habitable volume per unit launch mass, and better radiation shielding, compared with traditional aluminum modules, company representatives have stressed.

Bigelow Aerospace has already launched three experimental modules to space. The first two, known as Genesis I and Genesis II, lifted off in 2006 and 2007, respectively, and then zoomed around Earth as free flyers on uncrewed test missions. The third, the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), has been attached to the International Space Station (ISS) since April 2016. It currently serves as a sort of warehouse, storing lots of stuff on the space-constrained orbiting lab, and will stay berthed there through at least 2020.

The BEAM provides 565 cubic feet (16 cubic meters) of internal volume. Bigelow’s private space stations will center around something much bigger — a module called the B330, which will feature 11,650 cubic feet (330 cubic meters) of pressurized volume (hence the name).

A single B330 could be a stand-alone station, or several could be linked up to provide even more space. These stations could orbit Earth or the moon, and they could even be set up on the lunar surface, Bigelow has said. (The company also aims to develop a monster module called Olympus, which would boast six times more internal volume than the B330. Bigelow Aerospace aims to start serious work on Olympus within the next eight to 10 years, Bigelow said during today’s teleconference.)

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You’ll need deep pockets if you’re interested in staying aboard a Bigelow station; prices will likely run in the “low seven figures,” Bigelow said today. He doesn’t expect tourist jaunts to make up the bulk of his business, however.

“What we’ve always anticipated and expected is that we would be very involved in helping foreign countries to establish their human space programs, and be able to facilitate whatever their needs were in whatever context that they wanted to pursue,” he said. “The corporate world, obviously, is huge, and [leveraging] that is also our intent.”

Bigelow Aerospace is on track to launch its first two B330 modules in 2021, Bigelow said. And in October of last year, the company announced that it’s working with United Launch Alliance to get a B330 into orbit around the moon by 2022.

Also today, Bigelow announced that BSO has established a partnership with the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, which manages the ISS US National Laboratory.

“With larger commercial platforms on the horizon, BSO recognizes the importance of gaining experience on the ISS,” BSO representatives said in a statement. “Through this experience, BSO leadership hopes to gain a better knowledge of current and future customer needs on orbit as they pertain to larger-scale operations that are both science and non-science-related that cannot be handled by the ISS.”

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Sebastien Clarke

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