Opinion: A glimpse of the future? Bigelow Aerospace releases report on human spaceflight
In recent years many within the private space community and government alike, see NASA being sacked as something beneficial to the advancement of permanent private access to space. One private company however, has shown what the real benefit can be. And it comes in the form of clever public-private partnerships with the space agency.
It all started a day before NASA and industry partners participated in a Nov. 13 press conference, which celebrated the conclusion of the highly-successful Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program, or COTS. This was a NASA initiative, which oversaw the development of new private launch vehicles and spacecraft for cargo transfer to the International Space Station. On Nov. 12, the private aerospace company, Bigelow Aerospace released a report showing how the COTS model could be applied for accessing beyond-Low Earth Orbit (LEO) destinations, such as cislunar space and the surface of the Moon. The report had been mandated by NASA earlier this year, as part of an unpaid agreement with the private firm.
In the 77-page report that was delivered to NASA, Bigelow detailed how the space agency and the private sector can work together in mutually beneficial partnerships towards that goal. A goal that as acknowledged by the report, is unreachable today by government or private industry alone – due to financial reasons.
The report calls for the creation of a semi-commercial lunar base, accommodated by a permanent commercial cislunar transportation network for crew and cargo. This is similar to the way NASA is fostering the creation of a permanent private space transportation system to LEO, through the COTS and Commercial Crew programs. The report also details how this could be achieved by using the launch vehicles that are currently in use today, as well as ones that are currently being developed. One of the vehicles also cited in the report, is NASA’s own heavy-lift booster, called the Space Launch System, or “SLS.”
Another issue brought up by the report, was that of property rights. Bigelow stressed that for the private sector to be engaged in the activities outlined in the report, it should be able to reap the benefits of its efforts. In short, it should be given property rights of what it has surveyed, utilized and helped to develop on the Moon and elsewhere.
The report is clear on this issue underscoring that: “Without property rights, any plan to engage the private sector in long-term beyond LEO activities, will ultimately fail.”
Private property rights in space has been a nebulous and unclear issue since the signing of the Outer Space Treaty in 1967. This treaty forms the legal framework concerning activities in space. It strictly forbids any ownership claims in space made by governments and states. But whether this prohibition extends to claims made by companies or individuals, has long been debated.
Robert Bigelow, founder of Bigelow Aerospace, stated during the unveiling of his report that he wants to clarify the situation. He plans to apply before the end of the year to the Federal Aviation Administration, for an overview of the legal status concerning such private property rights.
Bigelow’s partnership with NASA isn’t restricted to the unveiling of the recent report however. The company signed a $17.8 million contract with the space agency in 2012, for the construction of a BEAM module, to be delivered to the International Space Station in 2015 on one of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets. BEAM stands for Bigelow Expandable Activity Module. It consists of an inflatable space habitat module, with a volume of 16 cubic meters. Its delivery to the ISS will see the start of a 2-year test period, to assess its performance, structural integrity, and overall leak rate. Both NASA and Bigelow hope to be able to utilize this technology for beyond-LEO destinations like the Moon and Mars.
Inflatable habitat technology was under development by NASA in the 1990’s, through the Transhab concept. Its aim was to develop inflatable modules for the International Space Station that was under construction at the time. Because of overall delays and cost increases, Transhab was eventually cancelled and its patents were bought by Bigelow. The company then went on to develop and launch two small experimental modules into orbit named Genesis 1 and 2, in 2006 and 2007. These two modules, in essence served as a proof-of-concept for inflatable habitat technology. The company is currently developing a larger 330-cubic meter module called BA 330. It is hoped that this larger module will form the basis for Bigelow’s Commercial Space Station in low-Earth orbit around the 2017 time frame.
This commentary is based at least in part off the opinions of the author and does not necessarily reflect those of The SpaceFlight Group.
SpaceFlight Insider is a space journal working to break the pattern of bias prevalent among other media outlets. Working off a budget acquired through sponsors and advertisers, SpaceFlight Insider has rapidly become one of the premier space news outlets currently in operation. SFI works almost exclusively with the assistance of volunteers.