Artist's concept of Bigelow's BEAM module attached to the ISS. Credit: Bigelow/NASA

WASHINGTON — NASA is looking for a company to fit a Bigelow Aerospace-built inflatable module with a Boeing-designed berthing mechanism so the balloon-like structure can be attached to the international space station in 2015.

NASA wants a single contractor to build a Passive Common Berthing Mechanism, the design for which the agency will provide as government-furnished equipment, then attach it to the Bigelow Expanded Activity Module (BEAM). This inflatable structure will be attached to the aft-facing port of the station’s Tranquility node for a technology demonstration project that could last up to two years. NASA will evaluate how the Bigelow module, which has an interior volume of about 16 cubic meters and will be used only for cargo storage, compares with the station’s aluminum modules in a space environment.

Companies interested in building the berthing mechanism must submit bids to NASA by April 8. After NASA picks a winner and gives the go-ahead to start the work, the contractor will have 16 months to build the berthing hardware, install it on BEAM, and test it for leaks, according to NASA’s March 18 solicitation.

In December, NASA gave Bigelow a $17.8 million firm-fixed-price contract “to provide and operate the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) on-board the international space station.”

Asked why that contract did not call for Bigelow to deliver a module already equipped for connecting with the space station, Jason Crusan, director of the Advanced Exploration Systems Division at NASA headquarters, said March 26 that “Bigelow and NASA decided jointly to have NASA provide the [Passive Common Berthing Mechanism] as government provided equipment.”

“NASA should properly be taking on the work that they have experience with, such as docking, or use of the robotic arm, that sort of thing,” Mike Gold, director of Washington operations for North Las Vegas, Nev.-based Bigelow, said March 25.

The space station’s prime contractor, Boeing Space Exploration of Houston, designed the Common Berthing Mechanisms now used to connect visiting vehicles with the U.S. segment of the station. Boeing spokeswoman Patricia Soloveichik, reached by email March 26, declined to say whether Boeing would bid on the BEAM work.

Gold was hopeful there would be some competition for the contract.

“We’re excited about the program moving forward and eager for NASA to receive a wide variety of bids on this important piece of hardware,” Gold said.

Boeing and Bigelow have some history together. Bigelow is a partner on Boeing’s CST-100 space capsule, one of the three astronaut taxi designs NASA is funding as part of its Commercial Crew Program. Bigelow’s model shop in North Las Vegas made a full-size mockup of the CST-100 that Boeing often displays at industry conferences.

Bigelow also has agreements with Boeing and Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) to provide transportation to standalone Bigelow space stations the company wants to launch later this decade.

It is SpaceX, however, that will haul BEAM up to the international space station in 2015 during one of the 10 remaining cargo supply missions the company will fly for NASA under a 12-flight, $1.6 billion contract it got in 2008. BEAM will be attached to the station’s Tranquility node by a ground-operated robotic arm, rather than by space-walking astronauts.

Bigelow’s ultimate goal is to launch and operate free-flying inflatable outposts for government, commercial and private customers. The first of these spacecraft, which the company calls station Alpha, would provide occupants with about half the internal volume of the international space station.

But it is not certain when the first Bigelow station Alpha would launch; the debut of privately operated crew vessels, which paying visitors could hire to fly to Bigelow’s stations, is tethered to NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

NASA still wants at least one commercial crew system, out of three now in development, to conduct its first astronaut flight in 2017. However, the Commercial Crew Program has never been funded at the level the White House has sought. A stopgap spending bill signed March 26 gives Commercial Crew $489 million for 2013 — more than the $406 million in had in 2012, but much less than the $830 million the White House requested.


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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...