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Bigelow Aerospace BA 330 module
An artist’s conception shows the B330 space module in Earth orbit. (Credit: Bigelow Aerospace)

DENVER – Bigelow Aerospace and United Launch Alliance have announced a plan to launch Bigelow’s B330 expandable space module aboard an Atlas 5 rocket in 2020, to serve as a destination for commercial operations in orbit.

Today’s announcement at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colo., came just one day after a much smaller test module – the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM – arrived at the International Space Station. Over the next two years, NASA will test the BEAM to learn how well the stretched-out room stands up to the harsh space environment.

Bigelow Aerospace’s founder, real-estate billionaire Robert Bigelow, said the B330 may end up docked to the station as well. The module would add 330 cubic meters to the station’s habitable volume, which is 20 times the volume of the BEAM when fully expanded. The B330 would boost the station’s current pressurized volume by 30 percent.

Put another way, the B330 is the equivalent of a two-bedroom apartment, as opposed to the bedroom-sized BEAM. Tory Bruno, ULA’s president and CEO, quipped that the B330 will be “bigger than my first apartment.”

In a ULA news release, Bigelow said the module could serve “as a multipurpose testbed in support of NASA’s exploration goals as well as provide significant commercial opportunities.” The project’s working name is XBASE or Expandable Bigelow Advanced Station Enhancement, he said.

Bigelow Aerospace built the BEAM under the terms of a $17.8 million contract with NASA, but there’s no indication that the space agency would immediately go along with Bigelow’s latest space station expansion plan.

NASA officials have said Bigelow’s expandable modules could serve as pathfinders for next-generation spacecraft. “It is the future,” NASA space station program manager Kirk Shireman said last week, before the BEAM was launched aboard a SpaceX Dragon cargo capsule. However, the space agency will probably want to get the BEAM experiment well under way before moving on to XBASE.

Bigelow said an alternative would be to launch the B330 as a free-flying space station, serviced by commercial spaceships such as SpaceX’s Crew Dragon or Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner. Blgelow Aerospace and the Boeing Co. struck just such a partnership several years ago.

Commercial clients are waiting in the wings to use such an orbital destination, Bigelow said. The potential applications include space tourism as well as zero-gravity science experiments, manufacturing and media projects.

For years, Bigelow has been weighing how the first B330 modules would be launched. Today’s announcement signals that he’s going with United Launch Alliance, a joint venture involving Boeing and Lockheed Martin. “When looking for a vehicle to launch our large, unique spacecraft, ULA provides a heritage of solid mission success, schedule certainty and a cost effective solution,” Bigelow said.

The deal announced today involves a launch slot reservation for an Atlas 5 in 2020 rather than a firm contract, ULA made clear in a follow-up tweet. Bigelow acknowledged that many of the details for launch still have to be worked out, and Bruno said ULA was focusing for now on technology and talent rather than dollars and investment.

Expandable space modules are attractive because they can fit in a relatively small space in their folded-up form, and then grow to several times their voiume in outer space. For example, the compressed B330 is designed to be packed within the 5-meter-wide payload fairing of an Atlas 5. The big question is whether the layered Kevlar-type skin of such modules can stand up to the radiation, micrometeoroid impacts and wide temperature swings in outer space.

The prospects are promising, based on the durability of the two Genesis test modules that Bigelow Aerospace launched aboard Russian rockets nearly a decade ago. Both of those uncrewed modules are still in orbit. By the time NASA finishes up the BEAM experiment in 2018 or so, Bigelow should have a much better idea whether expandable modules are in for a boom or a bust.

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