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Lunar depot
An artist’s conception shows a Bigelow B330 expandable module in lunar orbit, with United Launch Alliance’s ACES propulsion stage attached. (Bigelow Aerospace Illustration)

NASA is shifting its attention to the moon, and so are Bigelow Aerospace and United Launch Alliance: Today the two companies said they’d work together to put an outpost in orbit around the moon by as soon as 2022.

The plan builds on the companies’ earlier partnership to send one of Bigelow’s B330 expandable space modules into Earth orbit.

Now the idea is to launch a B330 into low Earth orbit on ULA’s Vulcan launch vehicle, get it outfitted as a platform for lunar-orbit operations and send up 70 tons of propellant on two Vulcans. Then ULA’s Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage would fuel up, attach itself to the B330 and push onward to the moon.

Billionaire Robert Bigelow, president of Bigelow Aerospace, said the lunar station could play a role in NASA’s plans to establish a moon base and move on to Mars.

“This commercial lunar depot would provide anchorage for significant lunar business development, in addition to offering NASA and other governments the moon as a new exciting location to conduct long-term exploration and astronaut training,” he said in a news release.

ULA’s president and CEO, Tory Bruno, said his company was pleased to continue its relationship with Bigelow Aerospace. “The company is doing such tremendous work in the area of habitats for visiting, living and working off our planet, and we are thrilled to be the ride that enables that reality,” he said.

The infrastructure for the station is still under development. Bigelow, for example, has a smaller expandable module attached to the International Space Station for testing — and this month NASA hinted that the module may be kept as long-term storage space.

The B330 would offer 20 times as much volume, equivalent to a two-bedroom apartment. Bigelow says two B330 habitats could be ready for launch after 2020.

ULA, meanwhile, aims to have its next-generation, semi-reusable Vulcan rocket ready for its first liftoff by 2019. Blue Origin, the space company founded by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos, is testing its BE-4 rocket engine for use on the Vulcan. Aerojet Rocketdyne is waiting in the wings with its AR1 engine in case Blue Origin falters.

Vulcan’s first launches would use ULA’s existing Centaur upper stage. ULA has said the Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage, or ACES, won’t be ready until 2022.

Perhaps the biggest question relates to the costs of developing the hardware and getting it to the moon, which could amount to billions of dollars. Who’ll pay? In a pair of tweets, Bigelow said “capital has been flowing from both companies and will continue,” but added that “NASA and this country will need to have investment also to pay for the benefits.”

NASA is concentrating on development of its own heavy-lift rocket for missions to the moon and Mars, known as the Space Launch System.

The space agency also studying options for setting up a Deep Space Gateway in lunar orbit: ULA already has drawn up a cislunar concept that doesn’t include Bigelow Aerospace’s module. Other space companies such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Orbital ATK have floated concepts as well. International Space Station partners such as Russia and the European Space Agency have their own ideas.

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