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B330-based space station
An artist’s conception shows three Bigelow Aerospace B330 modules linked together to create a space station being serviced by SpaceX Dragon spacecraft. Such a configuration would provide as much pressurized volume as the International Space Station. (Bigelow Aerospace Illustration)

Nevada-based Bigelow Aerospace has had space modules in orbit for more than a decade, but now billionaire founder Robert Bigelow is starting a new push to operate commercial space stations.

To that end, he has set up a separate company called Bigelow Space Operations, or BSO, with the aim of having Bigelow’s expandable B330 modules sent into orbit. Two of the 330-cubic-meter (12,000-cubic-foot) habitats are due to be ready for launch by as early as 2021.

The timing for deployment will depend on the outcome of Bigelow’s negotiations with potential launch providers, and the findings of a market study to be conducted by BSO this year.

“We intend to spend millions of dollars this year in drilling down, hopefully, to a conclusion one way or the other as to what the global market is going to look like, and we expect to finish this investigation by the end of this year,” Bigelow told reporters today during a teleconference.

Bigelow said BSO would report “whether the news is terrible, or is it mediocre, or is it great,” and decide on that basis whether to start building more B330s.

Several of those modules could be combined to create orbital outposts bigger than the International Space Station (which has 32,333 cubic feet of internal pressurized space).

Bigelow Aerospace also has plans for a gigantic space station called Olympus, with more than twice as much volume as the International Space Station. Olympus stations could be ready for launch eight to 10 years from now, but they’d have to be built at a new manufacturing facility in Florida, Alabama or some other location suitable for transportation to the launch pad, Bigelow said.

All of Bigelow’s space modules — including two uncrewed Genesis test spacecraft that were launched on Russian rockets in 2006 and 2007, and the 560-cubic-foot BEAM module that’s currently attached to the space station — rely on an expand-in-space technology that NASA developed in the 1990s.

The technology involves launching a folded-up, soft-walled spacecraft and then inflating it to its full volume in space. Because of the materials used in the wall fabric, such modules can be made more impervious to micrometeoroid impacts and space radiation than metal-hulled habitats, Bigelow said.

Bigelow noted that his drive to create commercial space stations has had its ups and downs. He said he had commitments of various sorts for space deals with representatives from eight countries back in 2007.

“And then all hell broke loose,” due to the Great Recession and the twists and turns of space policy, Bigelow said.

Today, he’s facing what he calls a “different playing field.” The interest in space operations has rebounded, thanks to improvements in the economy and reductions in the cost of access to space, pioneered by SpaceX.

But Bigelow said he and other potential space station operators are facing competition from two main sources. One is China, which Bigelow said has been talking with some of his former partners about joining in on a space station project beginning in the 2022-2023 time frame.

“They are being systematically courted by China,” Bigelow said.

The other is NASA, which is already starting to shift its focus toward the yet-to-be-built Lunar Orbital Platform Gateway while leaving the fate of the International Space Station after 2025 uncertain.

“This is a political problem … and one that I call upon the Trump administration to get involved in,” Bigelow said. He said he had an “uneasy feeling” that there was no clearly defined plan for moving from the space station to future platforms for research, manufacturing and other activities in low Earth orbit.

Bigelow said he’s focusing on “helping foreign countries to establish their human space programs, and be able to facilitate on whatever their needs were.” Corporate applications would also be considered, but despite Bigelow’s long experience as a hotel magnate, he isn’t that interested in operating space hotels.

“We don’t look at tourism as a particularly deep market,” he said.

Even though Bigelow sees NASA as a competitor, it’s a potential customer as well.

NASA’s 2019 budget proposal calls for spending $150 million to facilitate the transition to commercial operations in low Earth orbit. If that comes to pass, BSO would be interested — as would other companies, such as Axiom Space and NanoRacks.

In league with United Launch Alliance, Bigelow also has offered the B330 as an option for space station expansion or for a supply depot in lunar orbit.

ULA isn’t the only potential partner. Other launch providers — including SpaceX and Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture — could be in play, said Blair Bigelow,  who is vice president of corporate strategy for Bigelow Aerospace (and Robert Bigelow’s granddaughter).

Robert Bigelow said firm launch contracts wouldn’t be drawn up “if we don’t see a viable business case” to support BSO’s mission. He spoke dismissively about the idea of having a space station “whimsically deployed on a wing and a prayer.”

“We would pause after developing two of our 330s,” he said. “They would be sitting on the ground, waiting for deployment — if in fact they business simply weren’t there, if NASA were not interested, and the foreign countries were already spoken for in terms of where they’re going, and the corporate world was not interested as well.”

Nevertheless, Bigelow made clear that he was putting real resources into Bigelow Space Operations. He said BSO began hiring staff members in January.

“We will be hiring, this year … between three and four dozen people,” he said. “Overall, when the company is in full operation, with station operations, I expect the population of our staff to number between 400 and 500.”

In a separate announcement, the company said it was already partnering with the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, or CASIS, which manages applications on the International Space Station in its role as a national research laboratory.

CASIS may well play a similar role for managing commercial space station operations, BSO said in its statement.

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