WASHINGTON — Sierra Nevada Space Systems of Louisville, Colo., got a nearly $2 million contract from NASA to build the berthing mechanism Bigelow Aerospace of North Las Vegas, Nev., will need to attach an experimental inflatable stowage module to the international space station (ISS) in 2015.

Under the terms of the 16-month firm-fixed-price contract awarded May 28, Sierra Nevada will build a passive common berthing mechanism — a piece of hardware that allows spacecraft to be berthed with the international space station (ISS) — for the Bigelow Expanded Activity Module (BEAM). 

Once the mechanism is finished, Sierra Nevada will bring it to Bigelow’s North Las Vegas factory and install the hardware on BEAM under Bigelow’s supervision, Mike Gold, Bigelow’s director of Washington operations, said June 11.

Bigelow’s ultimate goal is to build free-flying inflatable space habitats and sell them to government and private customers. However, the cheap space launch services Bigelow was banking on to close its business case for inflatable spacecraft have not materialized, and the company has not launched a module since Genesis 2, a test bed sent to space aboard a Russian Dnepr rocket in 2007. 

Since then Bigelow has sold only one module, BEAM, to one government customer: the United States. Under a contract signed in December, NASA is paying Bigelow $17.8 million “to provide and operate the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) on board the international space station.”

The berthing mechanism work was not part of the December deal. The agency and the company mutually decided that NASA should provide the design for that hardware as government-furnished equipment, Jason Crusan, director of the Advanced Exploration Systems Division at NASA headquarters here, told SpaceNews in March.

BEAM, which has an interior volume of about 16 cubic meters, is to be attached to the aft-facing port of the international space station’s Tranquility node in 2015, where it could remain for up to two years. NASA will cache cargo in the The Bigelow module is part of a technology demonstration mission to study how inflatable structures compare with traditional metallic modules in the harsh space environment. 

BEAM is now scheduled to fly to ISS in the summer of 2015 on the eighth of 12 contracted cargo missions Space Exploration Technologies Corp. is flying for NASA under a $1.6 billion contract it got in 2008. BEAM will be attached to ISS by a ground-operated robotic arm, rather than by spacewalking astronauts.

Meanwhile, Bigelow Aerospace founder Robert Bigelow said in late May said the company is working to launch its next module, the BA330, in 2016. That model, named for its 330 cubic meters of interior volume, will be the first to be visited by crews, if everything goes according to Bigelow’s plan.

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...