Bigelow Ends Employee Furloughs, Resumes Limited Hiring

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WASHINGTON — Bigelow Aerospace, the North Las Vegas, Nev., developer of inflatable space habitats that laid off almost half its employees in September, is ending a “furlough Friday” policy it had instituted for the remaining work force and is looking to do some hiring, according to a company official.

“The furlough has been terminated and new hiring is occurring,” Mike Gold, Bigelow Aerospace’s director of Washington operations and business growth, said in a March 20 telephone interview.

Gold would not say how many new employees Bigelow wanted to bring on or what sort of work they would be doing.

A former employee with knowledge of the company’s latest personnel moves told Space News that Bigelow employees had been working at reduced wages and taking one unpaid “furlough Friday” per pay period since last summer, and that the last of these was March 16.

The former employee added that the new hires would likely be model makers who will start construction of a mock-up for the company’s BA-2100 Olympus module. That module would be even larger than the six-person BA 330 habitat, a structure with some 330 cubic meters of internal volume that Bigelow has been working on, and which the company intends to market to sovereign and private clients.

Bigelow laid off about 40 employees in late September, leaving the company with about 50 workers. At the time, the company said it was being forced to scale back its operations because it was still waiting for U.S. industry to field a crew transportation system that could fly paying customers to Bigelow’s stations in low Earth orbit.

Bigelow launched two prototype habitats to low Earth orbit in 2006 and 2007 but has not flown anything to space since. In addition to ending the furloughs and looking to hire, Bigelow is keeping busy by courting NASA as a customer. The company wants to build an inflatable module — called a Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM — that could be anchored to the international space station.

Gold said that Bigelow has completed various planning and development milestones for NASA and that the company is “aggressively working with our colleagues at NASA to execute an agreement as soon as possible” on BEAM.

Josh Buck, a NASA spokesman, said that NASA has been considering Bigelow’s BEAM proposal since the company responded to a 2010 broad agency announcement seeking ideas from industry on how to bolster the capabilities of the international space station as a national laboratory.

“Bigelow Aerospace proposed to design, fabricate and launch a module to demonstrate expandable habitat technology on the space station,” Buck wrote in a March 21 email. NASA subsequently entered into ”a no-cost contract with Bigelow to cover early requirements development [for BEAM]but it is not for the flight article,” he said.

Buck added that NASA will make a decision “over the next several months” about whether to acquire flight hardware from Bigelow. If NASA does proceed with the acquisition, Bigelow’s BEAM would eventually ride to the space station on either Space Exploration Technologies Corp.’s Falcon 9 rocket or Orbital Sciences Corp.’s Antares rocket. Those two companies are expected to start space station supply runs later this year as part of their Commercial Resupply Services contract with NASA.

Besides inflatable habitats, Bigelow is working with Boeing Space Exploration of Houston on that company’s CST-100 space capsule. Boeing is expected to propose that vehicle, paired with a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket, as its entry for the third round of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. NASA is expected in July or August to make awards, worth $300 million to $500 million over 21 months, to at least two teams vying to develop privately owned astronaut transportation systems.

Boeing has received funding under previous Commercial Crew Program awards, as have Space Exploration Technologies Corp., Blue Origin and Sierra Nevada Space Systems. All four were expected to submit entries for the program’s third round, bids for which were due March 23.