WASHINGTON — Seizing the opportunity to promote the private sector’s role in NASA’s post-space shuttle future, an official from Bigelow Aerospace flew to Denver in July to privately brief a White House-charted panel on a stripped down version of the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle that could be ready as soon as 2013 to start carrying passengers to and from low Earth orbit.

Such a system is crucial to Bigelow’s plans for deploying Sundancer, an inflatable space station module the North Las Vegas, Nev.-based firm is building based on NASA’s Transhab design. In search of the means to transport paying passengers to Sundancer, Bigelow has spent the past two years working with Denver-based United Launch Alliance to study a human-rated version of the Atlas 5 rocket.

But it was not until last month that Bigelow quietly unveiled the “Orion Lite” concept in a private briefing to former Lockheed Martin Chief Executive Norm Augustine and his White House-charted committee tasked in May with developing a range of options for an affordable and sustainable U.S. human spaceflight program.

Bigelow’s crew capsule design is modeled on the Orion vehicle that Lockheed Martin — one of United Launch Alliance’s corporate parents — is developing for NASA.

In a July 30 interview with Space News, Mike Gold, director of Bigelow’s Washington office, said he believes a low Earth-orbit optimized version of Orion could be ready to launch atop a human-rated version of the Atlas 5 within three or four years — much sooner than NASA’s discredited March 2015 target for Orion and Ares 1 first crewed launch.

Gold said the Bigelow capsule would have the same outer mold line as NASA’s 5-meter-diameter Orion and possibly the same internal pressure vessel, but little else in common.

For starters, NASA expects the lunar-capable Orion crew capsule and propellant-laden service module to weigh well in excess of 20,000 kilograms. Gold would not provide weight or cost estimates for Bigelow’s Orion Lite concept, but said the envisioned vehicle would be light enough to launch atop an Atlas 5 with a twin-engine Centaur upper stage but no strap-on solid-rocket boosters. This configuration, known as the 402, is capable of lofting 12,500 kilograms into low Earth orbit.

Gold said the Bigelow capsule would also be capable of launching atop the Falcon 9 rocket Hawthorne, Calif.-based Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) hopes to debut this year.

“I don’t think there’s any question that a commercial capsule can be constructed, tested and launched years before the existing Orion plan will come together, if it ever does,” Gold said. “We’re moving beyond Orion-Ares at this point.”

A startup venture founded in the late 1990s by real estate mogul Robert Bigelow, the company currently has two subscale expandable space modules in orbit. The privately financed Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 modules were launched in 2006 and 2007, respectively, from Russia aboard Dnepr rockets.

A combination of rising Russian launch prices and the success of Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 compelled the company to skip the launch of additional subscale demonstrators and accelerate development of Sundancer, a six-person space station that could grow to accommodate 15.

“We have a history of leveraging existing technology as demonstrated by the Dnepr missions, and utilizing a commercial capsule simply follows in the pragmatic path we have begun upon,” Gold said. “We will soon be moving forward with solicitations focused on the airframe and getting quotes from various subcontractors.”

Gold would not say whether Orion prime contractor Lockheed Martin has or will have any involvement in Orion Lite. Lockheed Martin spokeswoman Joan Underwood did not return multiple phone calls seeking comment by press time. But industry and government sources familiar with the effort, said Lockheed has helped Bigelow with the concept.

From the outside, the full-size mockup built for Bigelow appears to be a clone of NASA’s Orion capsule adorned with the Bigelow logo.

But while NASA’s Orion is intended to carry up to six people to the international space station and four to the Moon, Gold said Bigelow’s commercial variant will accommodate a miniumum of seven passengers because it is intended for low Earth-orbit missions only. That eliminates the need for bulky propellant tanks, extremely robust heat shields and other lunar-driven requirements that add mass to NASA’s Orion design.

“This will be meant for relatively short trips to and back, so there’s a difference in hang-time,” he said. “It’s not intended to operate independently for extended periods, which Orion is.”

One of the biggest deviations from NASA’s Orion design involves the vehicle’s landing system. Whereas NASA plans call for Orion to make an Apollo-style splashdown in the ocean, Bigelow is considering midair retrieval as a safer and more economical means to land the spacecraft following atmospheric re-entry.

“Air-capture is a strategy that has been implemented many times in the past, but never done at weights as high as a capsule,” Gold said.

Midair capture was used by the military during World War II to recover gliders and during the 1960s to catch film canisters dropped from Corona spy satellites orbiting overhead.

More recently, NASA attempted a midair capture of a Genesis solar-sample return capsule in 2004, but a parachute failure prevented the awaiting helicopter from making the catch. In 2007, Houston-based Spacehab, now Astrotech, dropped a mockup of a space station cargo module from a helicopter and subsequently recaptured it.

While the Bigelow capsule is in the presystem design review stage, industry sources familiar with the effort say much of the work Lockheed Martin has done on Orion can be readily applied to Orion Lite.

In addition, sources said, Lockheed Martin has a number of preflight Orion capsules planned for testing purposes that could be turned into flight vehicles for Bigelow.

Bigelow is not the only private space company venturing into the realm of manned spaceflight: SpaceX plans to fit at least seven crewmembers aboard its Dragon cargo and crew capsule designed for trips to and from the space station.

Gold said Bigelow wants to see SpaceX succeed with Falcon 9 and Dragon.

“However, we would be foolish to depend completely on one capsule provider or any single launch system,” Gold said. “Therefore, it’s vital from both a practical and business perspective to ensure that SpaceX and Dragon aren’t the only options available to us, hence the need for another capsule.”