Ace Rocketeers Swear They’ll Put Inflatable Space Stations in Orbit, and Soon
Bigelow Aerospace makes inflatable space habitats. But you only get to use the word “space” if you get those orbs to orbit, and, well, the people at Bigelow aren’t exactly rocket scientists. (What? They aren’t.) The company hitched its first ride to the high frontier with SpaceX last Friday. And today it announced a partnership with celestial transportation company United Launch Alliance to develop and launch habitable, inflatable, full-on space stations starting in 2020.
The move represents new business for ULA, and a strategic shift. The company has recently come under congressional fire for using Russian-made engines in the Atlas V rockets that’ll eventually take the Bigelow B330 habitat to orbit. And Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which can get stuff to space for many millions of dollars less, recently won an Air Force contract that would have been up ULA’s alley (although ULA did not bid). ULA, on the flip side, does have an A+, 100-percent launch success rate, which SpaceX does not. Still, with competitors on the rise, ULA seems to hope that relationships outside the old guard—and cost-cutting measures like a 375-person “reduction in force” they announced on Friday—will help their company stay in the space game.
That game, said founder Robert Bigelow at a press conference Monday afternoon, is changing, moving from governmental dominance to private partnerships like this one. “For the first time, stations and transportation systems will be available to serve as an open resource and not mainly the purview of nations,” he said. “NASA is evolving from owning everything to becoming a commercial customer and a tenant,” he said.
Bigelow imagines expandable habitats like the B330, which can be linked together, will become scientific research facilities, habitats on other planets and satellites, and tourist destinations. “We would love to see Disney have a Disney space station,” he said. “Wouldn’t that be cool?”
That’s what Tory Bruno, president and CEO of United Launch Alliance, called “the democratization of space.” At the press conference, he said that low-earth orbit was a new frontier, and Bigelow’s tech could get people there (and, by implication, his tech could get the Bigelow tech there first).
Bigelow Aerospace began in 1999, when founder Robert Bigelow decided to invest his hotel-industry earnings and know-how in space habitats. The company repurposed a space shuttle-era NASA idea to focus on expandable habitats, with the eventual goal of providing airy spaces for humans to inhabit—whether in low-Earth orbit, in deep space, or on the surface of Mars. Prototypes called Genesis I and II launched in 2006 and 2007. And just last Friday, the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module traveled to the International Space Station on SpaceX’s Dragon capsule. BEAM is the first “expandable” rated for humans, and a big step toward their bigger goals—like B330.
Now, ULA will help them make more leaps. ULA is a little younger than Bigelow, formed in 2006 when industry titans Lockheed Martin and Boeing joined forces (and rockets). That’s what commercial spaceflight looked like in the pre-SpaceX era. They hoped their Atlas and Delta rocket programs, together, could launch US government payloads to space for less than the standard rate. So far, their customers have included the Department of Defense, NASA, the National Reconnaissance Office, and the Air Force.
Bigelow already has partnerships with NASA, SpaceX, and Boeing. Combine that with ULA’s list of VIP clients, and it’s clear this power couple could do some heavy lifting. It doesn’t make a Disney space station a sure thing, but hey, it’d be cool if the next Happiest Place on Earth wasn’t on Earth at all.
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