Caption: Bigelow Aerospace BA330 inflatable space module Credit: BIGELOW AEROSPACE ARTIST’S CONCEPT

WASHINGTON — Bigelow Aerospace has hired former NASA astronauts Kenneth Ham and George Zamka to form the cornerstone of the private astronaut corps the North Las Vegas, Nevada, company will need to maintain and operate the inflatable space habitats it plans to launch some time after 2017.

Zamka comes to Bigelow Aerospace from the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, where he was deputy associate administrator from March 2013, when he left NASA, through June 11. Zamka will remain in Washington to aid the company’s business development efforts with the U.S. and other governments, and serve as a company face for federal policymakers, Robert Bigelow, founder of Bigelow Aerospace, said in a July 9 phone interview.

Ham, currently chairman of the Aerospace Engineering Department at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, is set to join Bigelow at the company’s North Las Vegas headquarters. A Navy captain, Ham will begin developing a training program for the astronauts Bigelow hopes to recruit, and start work on operational protocols for Bigelow Aerospace’s orbital habitats. 

Reached via email July 9, Ham confirmed that he will begin working for Bigelow Aerospace in early September.

Bigelow said the smallest space station his company plans to fly will require two BA330 modules, each of which has 330 cubic meters of internal space. The company expects to finish building the first two BA330s by 2017, Bigelow said.

Ham and Zamka are former military aviators who have piloted and commanded space shuttle missions. Their NASA and military credentials are part of the appeal for Bigelow, who plans to put both former space fliers to work as recruiters. 

“I would like to see us have half a dozen astronauts onboard by the end of the year,” Bigelow said.

Each Bigelow Aerospace space station would require about a dozen astronauts, including orbital, ground and backup personnel. The 660-cubic-foot stations would host four paying clients, who would be assisted by three company astronauts responsible for day-to-day maintenance, Bigelow said.

Initially, clients and crews would cycle in and out of the stations in 90-day shifts, Bigelow said. Eventually, the company hopes to shorten that cycle to 60 days.

“Our clients don’t need six months on orbit,” Bigelow said, referring to the time astronauts typically remain aboard the international space station. “It’s an imposition on them. They can get just as much out of three months.”

Zamka and Ham are part of a broader hiring push by Bigelow Aerospace. There are about 135 people in the North Las Vegas factory now, and “we’re hoping to be by Christmas time somewhere in the vicinity of 175,” Bigelow said. In addition, he said, “we will expand, substantially, our Washington representation,” which is led by attorney Mike Gold, an export control specialist who helped arrange the launch of Bigelow’s Genesis test habitats aboard Russian Dnepr rockets in 2006 and 2007.

Bigelow Aerospace has yet to book a launch for the BA330 modules it is building. The company’s business case hinges on the availability of domestic, commercially available launch and crew vehicles. Bigelow plans to buy these on margin from the winner of NASA’s commercial crew program, under which the agency is nurturing development of vehicles to ferry crews to and from the space station.

Boeing Space Exploration of Houston, Sierra Nevada Space Systems of Louisville, Colorado, and Space Exploration Technologies Corp. of Hawthorne, California, are developing vehicles under the current round of the program. NASA expects to select two concepts for full-scale development, including an initial paid crew flight, around the end of September. 

Bigelow is a junior partner on Boeing’s commercial crew entrant, the CST-100 space capsule. 

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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...