ULA, Bigelow Aerospace set sights on lunar orbit outpost
United Launch Alliance (ULA) and Bigelow Aerospace are teaming up to send an inflatable space station to low-lunar orbit by 2022. The effort will feature a series of launches aboard ULA’s new Vulcan rocket using its Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage (ACES) to make Bigelow’s B330 habitat a depot to facilitate future exploration and development of the Moon.
Showing their stuff
The B330 is Bigelow’s latest, largest expandable space habitat. Compressed into a cylindrical package one-third of its full size, when deployed in space, the B330 will employ an onboard atmospheric system to slowly expand into a bulbous cylinder with a volume of 330 cubic meters, or 11,654 cubic feet. That’s about the same space as a 1,300-square-foot (120-square-meter) home with 9-foot (2.7-meter) ceilings. In zero gravity, that’s enough space for a crew of six to work comfortably.
Bigelow’s B330 lunar mission would further demonstrate the feasibility of using inflatable structures in space.
Based on NASA’s TransHab inflatable habitat designs, two Bigelow “Genesis” habitats, each 410 cubic feet (11.5 cubic meters), were launched and expanded successfully in the 2000s. Additionally, the company’s Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), a small inflatable room attached to the International Space Station, is more than halfway through its two-year mission with NASA indicating BEAM could extend its time there.
The B330 habitat will be much larger and feature docking ports forward and aft along its axis, solar arrays, a thermal rejection system for radiating heat, and an airlock hatch aft to facilitate extravehicular activities.
Getting a B330 to the Moon’s neighborhood, however, will be a multi-phase process. The habitat will launch to low-Earth orbit (LEO) aboard ULA’s currently-in-development Vulcan rocket, which Bigelow states is the only commercial vehicle with launch performance and payload fairing space capable enough to encapsulate B330 in its uninflated state.
Once the habitat is in orbit, Bigelow will ensure it is functioning correctly and outfit its interior. When the B330 is fully operational, ULA would launch two more Vulcan ACES stages, each carrying 35 tons (32 metric tons) of cryogenic propellant to LEO. Using onboard transfer capabilities, one of the stages would be filled with propellant, dock with the B330, and then accelerate toward the Moon to place it in a low-Lunar orbit.
ULA has been touting its ACES capabilities for other purposes as well. At the Tennessee Valley Interstellar Workshop, a company representative talked up Xeus, a joint venture with Masten Space Systems that would turn an ACES stage into a horizontally oriented lunar lander. Leveraging its Vulcan launcher, ACES in-space capabilities, the XEUS lander, and new its partnership with Bigelow, ULA appears eager to expand the “cislunar space economy”.
Making the Moon cool again
The ULA-Bigelow announcement comes in the wake of the Trump administration refocusing NASA’s mission priorities on the Moon. President Trump reinstated the National Space Council this year and Vice President Mike Pence, as the council’s chairman, stated in an October address: “The National Space Council acknowledged the strategic importance of cislunar space – the region around the Moon – which will serve as a proving ground for missions to Mars and beyond and advance our stepping stone approach to going farther into the Solar System.”
Additionally, on Sept. 18, NASA and the Russian space agency signed a joined statement promising cooperation on the Deep Space Gateway, a space station that would be placed at the Earth-Moon L1 Lagrange point.
The ULA-Bigelow initiative – together with NASA’s Exploration Missions featuring the Space Launch System and Orion, and the Deep Space Gateway – could lay the groundwork for what could become a very busy Moon in the coming decade.
Video courtesy of Bigelow Aerospace
Bart Leahy is a freelance technical writer living in Orlando, Florida. Leahy's diverse career has included work for The Walt Disney Company, NASA, the Department of Defense, Nissan, a number of commercial space companies, small businesses, nonprofits, as well as the Science Cheerleaders.