CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — As NASA prepared for the rollout of its 2014 budget request — a $17.7 billion spending plan that includes a $105 million down payment for a revamped asteroid exploration initiative — its head of space operations quietly signed an agreement with Bigelow Aerospace to explore options for a lunar base and public-private orbital outposts near the international space station and at gravitationally stable Lagrange points 1.5 million kilometers from Earth.

The Space Act Agreement, signed March 25 by NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations, William Gerstenmaier, is intended to gather options for extending NASA’s commercial space development programs, currently focused on transporting cargo and crew to the international space station (ISS), to follow-on human exploration programs, Bigelow Aerospace founder and president Robert Bigelow said in an interview with SpaceNews.

“The purpose of this agreement is to facilitate and explore, in a manner that meets both national and commercial goals and objectives, joint public-private arrangements that would continue to build the ability for humans to live and work in space through the expansion of exploration capabilities beyond low Earth orbit,” the agreement says.

“The partnership continues to foster increased commercial use and research in low Earth orbit on the ISS and with Bigelow Aerospace’s private sector near-term plans to design, develop and operate in low-Earth orbit a commercial space station capability. It is coupled with private sector long-term plans of beyond low-Earth orbit operations, including those of Bigelow Aerospace to place a lunar base on the surface of the moon,” the agreement says.

Privately owned Bigelow Aerospace is developing inflatable space habitats it intends to lease to research organizations, companies, sovereign nations and other entities wishing to conduct experiments, operate businesses or fly personnel in space.

The Las Vegas-based firm, which licensed the technology from NASA and has spent more than $250 million to design, build and test it, including flying two prototypes, has a separate $17.8 million agreement with NASA to attach a third experimental habitat onto the space station.

Under the new Space Act Agreement, which offers no monetary payments to Bigelow from NASA, Bigelow will assess potential options for public and private human space expeditions beyond low Earth orbit, with the goal of giving NASA some lower-cost blueprints for exploration initiatives.

For example, a lunar base that NASA buys or leases might double as a commercial outpost, Bigelow said.

“This joint involvement … can provide synergy and enable missions in concert with national capabilities and technology investments, such as the NASA Orion and Space Launch System capabilities,” the agreement says.

Gerstenmaier could not be reached for comment, but NASA provided the following statement to SpaceNews: “As part of our broader commercial space strategy, NASA signed a Space Act Agreement with Bigelow Aerospace to foster ideas about how the private sector can contribute to future human missions. This will provide important information on possible ways to expand our exploration capabilities in partnership with the private sector.

“The agency is intensely focused on a bold mission to identify, relocate and explore an asteroid with American astronauts by 2025 — all as we prepare for an even more ambitious human mission to Mars in the 2030s. NASA has no plans for a human mission to the moon,” NASA said.

The agreement with Bigelow Aerospace is not exclusive, but Bigelow said his company, which operates as both a manufacturer of space habitats and as a general contractor, is uniquely positioned to serve as a type of buffer for NASA, which is losing purchasing power due to rising costs of traditional cost-plus-award-fee contracts and projected flat or declining budgets.

“One of the big inducements that we can give to these companies, which maybe NASA cannot do directly, is to say, ‘We’re going out to competitive bid, first of all, on a fixed-price contract basis for anything and everything that we’re talking about submitting to NASA for consideration and creating a menu from which NASA can select, so don’t go cutting a fat hog and thinking that you’re going to retire on this contract because that’s not the idea here,’” Bigelow said.

“The good news is if we can think of ways we can generate revenue commercially in this agreement with NASA, then NASA is open to that,” he said.

Under the agreement, Bigelow expects to complete a pair of reports for NASA before the end of the year.

NASA, in turn, agrees to:

  • Engage in outward-facing communications intended to highlight the importance of the work being conducted under (the) agreement and to encourage broad participation.
  • Actively participate in meetings and discussions when requested by Bigelow Aerospace.
  • Provide in-kind support to supplement Bigelow Aerospace’s financial and logistics contributions under (the) agreement.