NASA Banking on Bigelow Study To Break Big Contractor Bias

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WASHINGTON — Bigelow Aerospace has produced a report for NASA that shows how the agency could use privately operated space systems beyond low Earth orbit. 

A draft of the report, essentially a catalog of space systems and technologies that companies like Bigelow have proposed flying in space, was delivered to NASA’s top human spaceflight official during a May 23 press conference at NASA headquarters here. The report is the first deliverable due to the agency under a nonexclusive, unfunded Space Act Agreement the North Las Vegas, Nev.-based developer of inflatable space habitats signed with NASA in March. 

“Instead of being the typical approach where we put together all the plans and we ask for participation [from industry], we wanted to look at it the other way and see what’s available,” said William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations.

But since 2007, the agency has been experimenting with a different procurement model, embodied by the Commercial Crew and Cargo programs, where companies propose hardware and plans for fulfilling some NASA objective — cargo deliveries to the international space station, for example — and NASA funds those it thinks likeliest to succeed. 

In May 2012, NASA and Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) proved the model can work when the Hawthorne, Calif., company successfully delivered cargo to the space station with its Dragon space capsule and Falcon 9 rocket. The company has since flown two more cargo missions and is on tap for another 10 through 2016, under the Commercial Resupply Services contract it signed with NASA in 2008. NASA’s tab, including technology development aid and the 12 cargo deliveries, will be about $2 billion. SpaceX, meanwhile, remains free to sell both Dragon and Falcon 9 to customers besides NASA. Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., the other company NASA is funding under the Commercial Cargo Program, launched its first Antares rocket in April and is on track to deliver supplies to the space station this summer in a demo mission similar to the one SpaceX flew last year.

To replicate these results for missions beyond Earth orbit, Gerstenmaier said, an entity other than NASA needed to explore the industrial landscape for ideas. Leaving NASA out of the process, at least in the beginning, could help avoid the bias that sometimes colors studies undertaken by the agency and the big aerospace contractors it has relied on for nearly every mission in its history, he said.

“They’re used to a relationship between themselves and the government, and I think that biases some of the discussion, biases some of the information that we receive, and the data we get,” Gerstenmaier said.

Another Bigelow report, due to NASA by Oct. 31, will go a step further than the first, presenting industry-developed mission proposals and not just the technologies that could be used to carry out these missions. 

Neither NASA nor Bigelow has publicly released the report, but Gerstenmaier said NASA might do so in a few weeks. 

The founder and namesake of Bigelow Aerospace, Robert Bigelow, said his company surveyed about 20 well-known aerospace companies for the study. He identified only three of these, besides his own: Boeing Co., Sierra Nevada Space Systems and SpaceX. These are the three companies developing astronaut transportation systems with $1.1 billion in NASA funding awarded last August in the third round of its Commercial Crew Program.

Bigelow concepts that appeared in the report include the company’s BA330 inflatable space module and a new series of solar-powered space tugs the company has proposed developing in partnership with, among others, Aerojet of Sacramento, Calif., and Huntsville, Ala.-based Dynetics Inc., both of which are already working with Bigelow on propulsion systems for inflatable habitats. 

Bigelow said his company plans to have two BA330 modules ready to launch by 2016, although he stopped short of saying when the modules — which along with crucial subsystems such as life support are still in development — might actually fly in space.

Bigelow also said tests on another module, a test article called Guide that will inform design and development of the inflatable habitat around which Bigelow wants to build a turnkey Moon base, would begin in January or February of 2014.

Those tests will take place “in one of the dry lakes” near Las Vegas, Bigelow said.

In an interview with SpaceNews after the press conference, Bigelow said he was confident that the first BA330 module, for which Bigelow is developing many subsystems needed for future models, would be ready to launch in 2016. Bigelow has not identified a launch vehicle for the mission, although in the past he has said either SpaceX or United Launch Alliance might provide the ride. When Guide might be tested in space is unclear. 

Bigelow has said his company will not start launching modules until there is a commercially available, people-carrying spacecraft to take visitors there. The lack of such a system drove the company to lay off nearly two-thirds of its employees in 2011. 

Back then, “my biggest concern was about transportation,” Bigelow said. “It really hasn’t changed.”

In 2011, Bigelow Aerospace went from about 150 employees to about 50.  Today, it has about 100 employees, and “we have a green light on hiring,” Bigelow said. “We started hiring back toward the end of last year … and before Christmas, I think we’ll be around 125.”

The crewed spacecraft likely to be ready soonest are those being developed under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. Although the companies NASA decided to fund would retain the intellectual property rights to the systems they are developing with taxpayer assistance, actually completing these systems hinges on the availability of public funding, which Congress has been unwilling to mete out at the levels NASA has sought for the program. 

NASA wants at least one of the spacecraft it is funding under the Commercial Crew Program to be operational by the end of 2017, but has warned that the date could slip if funding is not available.