Robert Bigelow (left) and ULA CEO Tory Bruno (right) posed with a model of the the B330 at a press conference Monday afternoon at the 32nd Space Symposium. Credit: SpaceNews/Jeff Foust

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Bigelow Aerospace and United Launch Alliance announced a partnership April 11 that could lead to the launch of a Bigelow expandable module to be installed on the International Space Station as soon as 2020.

At a press conference during the 32nd Space Symposium here, the leaders of the two companies argued that the partnership, while still preliminary, could open up new markets in space and also help extend the life of the ISS.

“This is a fundamentally new mission in space,” said ULA president and chief executive Tory Bruno, referring to the development of a commercial habitat. “We haven’t had one of those in 20 or 30 years, arguably. So this is creating new things to do in space, making the space economy larger.”

The focus of the partnership will be to study the launch of Bigelow’s expandable habitats on ULA vehicles. Bigelow is currently developing the B330 module, which has a volume after expansion of 330 cubic meters. That module, Bigelow president Robert Bigelow said, can only be launched by the Atlas 5 552 — a version of the Atlas with a dual-engine Centaur upper stage that has yet to fly — given the module’s mass and dimensions.

While Bigelow has plans to develop its own free-flying commercial stations, the company said the initial B330, proposed for launch in 2020, could instead be attached to the ISS. In this approach, known as the Expandable Bigelow Advanced Station Enhancement, or XBASE, the B330 would increase the station’s volume by 30 percent while supporting NASA and commercial activities on the station.

“Our hope is that NASA would be the primary customer for that structure” in the event the B330 is added to the station, Bigelow said, with a “time sharing” capability to allow commercial users access to the module for certain periods of time. Bigelow said the company has had some discussions with NASA about the technical and other issues regarding XBASE, although it is still far from reaching any sort of agreement about adding the module to the station.

The XBASE, Bigelow said, could help extend the life of the ISS beyond its currently projected end date of 2024. However, he also noted that, when the ISS reaches the end of its life or the module is no longer needed on the station, it could be detached and serve as a free flyer.

The partnership between Bigelow Aerospace and ULA is still very preliminary, with no launch contracts signed and no exchange of funds disclosed between the companies. “This is a work in progress,” Bigelow said. “We do have an agreement on something that would be typical when you are doing the really early preliminary work in terms of characterization of a payload.”

“We’re collaborating together with resources of technology and talent,” Bruno said. “We don’t talk about dollars and investment. You’ll see, as time goes by, what this fully encompasses.”

Bigelow did not play down the challenges involved in trying to launch a commercial module and possibly attach it to the station. “The odds are huge that it’s going to be a struggle,” Bigelow said. ‘We’re going to have to work together to develop this to the satisfaction of NASA and the international partners, and also the markets. But there are such benefits that the logic really says this ought to be done.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...