WASHINGTON —NASA and Bigelow Aerospace have reached an agreement that could pave the way for attaching a Bigelow-built inflatable space habitat to the international space station, a NASA spokesman said.

The five-year, $17.8 million firm-fixed-price contract signed Dec. 20 calls for Bigelow “to provide and operate the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) on-board the international space station,” according to a notice on NASA’s procurement website.

“This effort is for Phase 2 of the BEAM ISS Demonstrator Module Project, and establishes the requirements, performance metrics, costs, and management of the effort that will be used to design, deliver and operate the BEAM,” the procurement notice states.

NASA spokesman Trent Perrotto declined Jan. 7 to provide more details about the agreement. He said a formal announcement is in the works.

Mike Gold, director of Washington operations for Bigelow Aerospace, said NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver has been invited to be on hand at Bigelow’s North Las Vegas, Nev., headquarters Jan. 16 to make the announcement. He declined to discuss the agreement until then.

BEAM, an inflatable space module similar to the Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 modules Bigelow launched into orbit in 2006 and 2007 atop Russian Dnepr rockets, is designed to provide extra storage at the space station and provide flight data on the on-orbit durability of Bigelow’s inflatable modules compared with the outpost’s existing aluminum modules.

Bigelow and NASA have been discussing an inflatable addition to the space station for years.

The deal signed Dec. 20 follows a nonpaying NASA contract Bigelow got in 2011 under which the company produced a list of procedures and protocols for adding BEAM to the space station. Bigelow got that contract, which did not call for any flight hardware, in response to a 2010 NASA Broad Agency Announcement seeking ideas for support equipment and services meant to help the U.S. portion of the international space station live up to its billing as a national laboratory.

Last March, NASA spokesman Josh Buck said the agency would tap one of its Commercial Resupply Services contractors, Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) or Orbital Sciences Corp., to get BEAM to the space station.

SpaceX and Orbital are under contract for space station cargo deliveries through 2016. So far, only SpaceX has flown to the station. The company, which flies Dragon cargo capsules atop Falcon 9 rockets, completed its first contracted run in October. Orbital, which is developing a cargo freighter called Cygnus for launch aboard the new Antares rocket, is now scheduled to launch a demonstration cargo run in February from NASA’s Wallops Island Flight Facility in Virginia.

SpaceX and Orbital both signed Commercial Resupply Services contracts in 2008. SpaceX’s $1.6 billion resupply pact calls for 12 flights. Orbital’s $1.9 billion deal is for 8 flights.

Dan Leone is the NASA reporter for SpaceNews, where he also covers other civilian-run U.S. government space programs and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He joined SpaceNews in 2011.Dan earned a bachelor's degree in public communications...