There are any number of ironies and good things in NASA's announcement to put a Bigelow Aerospace inflatable module on the International Space Station (ISS), but the hard truth is Bigelow likely needs NASA as a demonstration customer before its other business plans start to come to fruition.
NASA announced it would test a Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) onboard ISS for the dirt-cheap price of $17.8 million. BEAM is scheduled to arrive at the space station in 2015 aboard the eight SpaceX (News - Alert) cargo flight for a two year technology demonstration.
A robotic arm will pluck the BEAM package out of the unpressurized "trunk" area of the cargo Dragon spacecraft and then connect it to the aft port of the station's Tranquility node. Once connected, an onboard system will inflate it to its full volume. NASA has provided a short animation here illustrating the process.
From NASA-posted Flickr pictures here, BEAM looks a bit like one of the old-style pre-microwave popcorn "domes" put on its side.
During the two year test run, station crew members and ground-based engineers will gather performance data on the module, including its structural integrity and leak rate. Instruments embedded within the module will provide data on how the module handles radiation and temperature changes compared to traditional aluminum modules. At the end of the test period, the module will be jettisoned from the station, burning up on re-entry.
BEAM will be the third in-orbit structure for Bigelow Aerospace. The company has launched two prototype inflatable structures for demonstration purposes. Genesis I was launched in 2006, followed by Genesis II in 2007. Both inflatable structures, essentially free-flying satellites with a lot of open volume are still in orbit at last report.
Ultimately, Bigelow wants to launch a series of privately operated space stations based upon its BA 330 module, with sovereign clients and private customers tapping into the technology to rent outposts in low earth orbit and to build stations on the Moon's surface and in lunar orbit.
A Bigelow module at ISS provides another layer of engineering data and verification for the company's commercial plans. Space.com reports Bigelow would like to have its commercial "Alpha Station" ready for launch by late 2016. An astronaut trip to the station with a 60 day stay would cost between $26 to $37 million, with naming rights to the full complex running at $25 million a year.
Bigelow has been pitching its commercial space station service as a cost-effective option for a variety of nations, but there have been no announced customer signings so far. Delay in launching the service has been paced by the availability of affordable commercial manned spaceflight services to low earth orbit, to be provided by such companies as Boeing (News - Alert) and SpaceX once such services have been demonstrated and certified by NASA for transporting crew to ISS.
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Edited by Brooke Neuman