Bigelow Aerospace spawns spinoff company to market its space stations
After more than a week of teasing, Las Vegas-based Bigelow Aerospace announced the creation of a sister company called Bigelow Space Operations (BSO). Its mission is to “market and operate space stations developed by Bigelow Aerospace that are so capable, so diverse and so large that they can accommodate virtually unlimited use almost anywhere.”
BSO’s first goal, however, will be to figure out just how much of a market—global, national and corporate—there is for low-Earth orbit space stations, according to a Feb. 20, 2018, press release about the company’s creation.
“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,” said Bigelow Aerospace founder Robert Bigelow during a media conference call, according to SpaceNews.
That subject, according to BSO, “has had ambiguity for many years,” and it hopes to “establish concrete answers.”
Bigelow Aerospace has been developing expandable commercial space stations for almost two decades. It sent two small prototypes into orbit in 2006 and 2007 and even has a small module on the International Space Station. However, the company has even loftier goals and is currently building two 11,654-cubic-foot (330-cubic-meter) space stations that could be launched as soon as 2021.
The B330 modules, as they are called, are designed to be single-launch stand-alone space stations that can accommodate up to six people. The volume of each facility is three times that of the 3,700-cubic-foot (106-cubic-meter) U.S. Destiny laboratory module on the ISS.
Additionally, because B330 is expandable it would launch in a configuration that takes up one-third of its deployed volume. In total, the expanded station would be some 22 feet (6.7 meters) wide and 55 feet (16.8 meters) long. It would have two docking ports (one forward and aft), a hatch for spacewalks, two solar panels and two radiators.
“With the two launches of B330-1 and B330-2 expected in 2021, the time is now in 2018 to begin BSO activity,” the company stated in its press release.
BSO said it will begin to market these stations and begin the process of obtaining transportation for crew, clients and cargo to these future outposts, should the market be shown large enough to accommodate them.
Partnership with CASIS
In addition to beginning a multi-million dollar market research campaign, the company also announced a partnership with the nonprofit organization called the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), which manages the U.S. National Lab portion of the ISS.
According to a separate press release, BSO said it “will be facilitating the integration of payloads for commercial, academic and government customers.”
Specifically, BSO will contract with “payload integrating companies” to help develop “dynamic futures” for said companies in an eventual post-ISS environment and to offer itself as a customer.
Additionally, BSO wants to work with CASIS to understand how it can help the organization with its focus of promoting research in space, which could prove useful if the nonprofit were to someday “enable usage of B330 stations,” the company said.
To do that, BSO said its mandate is to “promote the services of the ISS National Lab, promote other payload facilitating companies and to develop new relationships for the ISS and Bigelow Aerospace stations.”
Transitioning away from ISS
The Bigelow Space Operations announcement came just over a week after the Trump administration’s FY 2019 budget proposal was released, which included a plan to end federal funding for the ISS by 2025.
In the proposal, the White House is requesting $150 million for 2019 to help spur the development of commercial facilities that could succeed the ISS in low-Earth orbit. Much like it is with the current commercial cargo and crew programs, NASA would be a customer for these privately-run orbital laboratories while the space agency sets its sights on Lunar-based destinations and beyond.
Last year, Congress mandated NASA provide it with an ISS transition plan, but the space agency has yet to release one publicly. Currently, the ISS partner space agencies have committed to funding ISS operations through 2024.
After 2024, however, there are several options being looked at. One of those includes handing over some or all of the ISS to one or more commercial entities. With an estimated annual operating cost of $1 billion to $2 billion just for the U.S. portion of the complex, it is unclear if a company would be willing to take on that task.
To make matters more complicated, the U.S. government doesn’t own all of the pieces of the station and will have to cooperate with its international partners on any commercial transitions.
Bigelow Aerospace’s ambitions
In 2016, only a couple of months after seeing BEAM expanded at the ISS, Bigelow Aerospace signed an agreement with NASA to develop a full-sized ground prototype of a deep space habitation module based on the B330 design as part of the second phase of the Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP).
Eventually, Bigelow Aerospace wants to send this module, called the Expandable Bigelow Advanced Station Enhancement (XBASE) to the ISS. It would likely launch atop a Vulcan rocket, which is currently under development by United Launch Alliance (ULA). Upon reaching orbit, the facility would rendezvous and dock with the outpost for evaluation, according to the company’s website.
Additionally, in October 2017, Bigelow Aerospace and ULA announced they had an agreement to launch a B330 atop the Vulcan rocket to place the module in a low-Lunar orbit to serve as a lunar depot.
While the initial press release about the “Lunar Sooner” mission suggested this would occur in as early as 2022, it is unclear if this is still the plan. It is possible that much of the future pacing of Bigelow Aerospace and BSO’s ambitions will be predicated on the outcome of the 2018 low-Earth orbit market study.
Bigelow Aerospace’s XBASE proposal. Video courtesy of Bigelow Aerospace
Derek Richardson has a degree in mass media, with an emphasis in contemporary journalism, from Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. While at Washburn, he was the managing editor of the student run newspaper, the Washburn Review. He also has a blog about the International Space Station, called Orbital Velocity.