International Space Station Could Get Private Inflatable Room

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SAN FRANCISCO — A privately financed inflatable module could be added to the international space station within the next two years if NASA and Bigelow Aerospace are able to come to an agreement soon, according to officials involved in the negotiations.

NASA is in discussions with Bigelow to acquire a Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, called BEAM for short, to use at the international space station (ISS).

Jason Crusan, chief technologist for space operations within NASA’s Space Operations Mission Directorate in Washington, said the Bigelow demonstration proposal has been received and is being evaluated.

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“In general we’re talking about a project that would take about 24 months from go-ahead to the module being on-orbit. It would be pretty fast-paced,” Crusan said in an interview. To deliver BEAM to the ISS, he said, NASA would arrange for a launch under the Commercial Resupply Services contract it awarded in 2008 to Hawthorne, Calif.-based Space Exploration Technologies.

Since 1999, North Las Vegas, Nev.-based Bigelow Aerospace has been working to create affordable inflatable space habitats for national space agencies and corporate clients.

The firm has launched two orbiting prototypes to date: Genesis 1 in 2006 and Genesis 2 in 2007.

Since then, the company has focused on ever-larger expandable modules, notably the Sundancer and BA330 modules.

Bigelow Aerospace sits on a 20-hectare plot of land outside Las Vegas, with an expansion of the company factory now under way that doubles the amount of floor space as the business begins the transition from research and development to module production.

The BEAM module Bigelow hopes to send to the ISS would be a larger version of the already-flown Genesis modules. Those modules measured 2.5 meters in diameter and 4.4 meters in length.

Pleased About the Progress

Michael Gold, Bigelow’s director of Washington operations and business development, said that while NASA and Bigelow have yet to sign an agreement for the mission, “we’re looking forward to doing so in the near future and we’re pleased about the progress.”

Gold said Bigelow Aerospace is working with the ISS National Laboratory program, as well as the space agency’s Space Operations Mission Directorate, the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate and the Office of Chief Technologist. Officials in these offices “have supported and encouraged this initiative,” Gold said.

In 2005, Congress designated the station a U.S. National Laboratory with the goal of stimulating space-based research, applications and operations.

NASA considers the ISS a unique and highly visible national asset with surplus capacity available for a wide spectrum of applications. Moreover, the space agency is anxious to work with other agencies and organizations to pursue applications.

Gold said Bigelow Aerospace is eager to be one of those organizations.

“Most of all,” Gold said, “we’re excited to see the substantial technological progress made by Bigelow Aerospace via the successful Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 missions utilized to take expandable habitat technology to the next level by incorporating such a module into a crewed environment.”

Gold said the company’s founder, Robert Bigelow, has invested $215 million of his money to date “to bring the promise of expandable habitats to fruition.”

Crusan said NASA has done evaluations of where BEAM would be robotically berthed on ISS. The most likely location would be one of the station’s Node 3 interfaces.

If NASA reaches an agreement with Bigelow, the first and foremost purpose of the mission would be to meet the technology demonstration needs Bigelow is looking to address, Crusan said. But at the same time, he added, NASA has a general interest in expandable habitats and “soft-sided” modules, as well as gaining experience on how they perform in orbit.

“That performance data would also be valuable to NASA,” Crusan added. The base plan is that crew would go in and out of the module.

A secondary benefit of the BEAM demonstration on the ISS is that it provides logistics, stowage and experience in on-orbit operations of a non-rigid aluminum structure, Crusan said. “It’s an exciting opportunity for both commercial and NASA to work together,” he said.