Bigelow Aerospace – a Las Vegas-based company that manufactures expandable space station modules and has one such inflatable capsule currently attached to the International Space Station (ISS) – announced Tuesday that it was establishing a spinoff venture aimed at exploring the commercial viability of habitable private space stations.
Named the Bigelow Space Operations (BSO), the subsidiary company’s first and foremost task will involve an in-depth study of the marketability of expandable space stations, before it begins its primary function of handling the sales, customer service and operations of these stations that the parent company Bigelow Aerospace manufactures.
Robert Bigelow, the company’s founder and CEO, said in a Tuesday conference call with reporters that the detailed market study, which would entail expenditures in the millions, would allow Bigelow Aerospace to decide whether it was worth the company’s while to go ahead with the launch of its first two B330 modules intended for lower earth orbit (LEO) as early as 2021.
“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 the Bigelow bigwig.
The survey is expected to be completed by the end of this year after which the company will be in a position to announce some level of qualitative assessment of the demand.
“We will make a conclusion and indicate whether the news is terrible, mediocre, or great,” Bigelow said.
Whether the aerospace company will be able to successfully build these capsules is least of the company’s concerns – the stretchable capsule currently attached to the ISS called the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM, is proof enough of the company’s expertise in this inflatable technology.
However, what Bigelow is more concerned about, and prudently so, is the feasibility of the massive project; whether there are any national, global, or corporate takers out there, what with the clear and present threat from formidable competitors like China and NASA looming ever large.
It must be mentioned that China is in the process of building its own space station expected to become operational by early 2020s and has been in marketing negotiations with several governments and global space station partners in that regard.
“They are offering very attractive terms and conditions and features that the commercial sector is going to have a horrible time trying to compete with,” said Bigelow. “That’s a huge disadvantage that exists today.”
The bigger threat, however, comes from none other than NASA as the agency looks to attract its current ISS partner countries to continue with the agency in its quest for deeper space exploration.
It goes without saying that the agency is preparing to stay in compliance with Trump’s new budget which proposes to cease direct funding for the ISS beyond 2024 and focus heavily on financing deeper space forays, instead.
“It reflects the administration’s confidence that America will lead the way back to the moon,” said NASA’s acting administrator, Robert Lightfoot, as he presented the budget proposal on Feb. 12 from NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama.
“NASA itself is a competitor,” he said. “Those ISS partners are now being courted to participate in deep space operations and [Lunar Orbiting Platform] Gateway and other kinds of programs, and they may not have much money left in terms of being a customer for LEO.”
The budget proposal also provides for private companies to play a role in the upkeep of the aging ISS beyond 2025, which could potentially benefit Bigelow considering the company’s expertise, not only in maintaining the massive space station but also in providing its cost-effective expandable technology for a replacement station.
Bigelow suggests that NASA will have to come up with a logical plan of action if it is really serious about handing over the ISS maintenance and operations to commercial players, but he doesn’t really see that happening anytime soon.
“I don’t see it being addressed,” he said.
Without suggesting any particular solution, Bigelow appealed to the Trump administration to intervene and find a workable solution to the problem.
“I get an uneasy feeling that there is not a plan, there is not something in place, to actually embrace all of the partners” in so far as commercial LEO operations are concerned, he said.
In a subsequent statement, Bigelow clarified that he had not had any discussions on the matter with the federal government.
“We really are available to discuss this topic with the administration and expose the problem that we see exists not only from a commercial standpoint but a political standpoint,” he said.
He also said that the company may not have a representation at the National Space Council meeting on February 21.
Without waiting for the outcome of the marketability survey, Bigelow Aerospace is going ahead with development of its first two B330 modules, on track for a 2021 launch, with four additional B330s “in the queue.”
The B330 is designed as a self-sustaining structure that can be “ganged together” with other B330 modules to form a larger space complex.
Also, the company’s claim that its modules are lighter with a smaller footprint and more cost-effective to launch compared to conventional metal capsules should create the kind of demand the company is looking at to make the project commercially realistic.
Should that be the case, Bigelow will put into effect his grander plan of building a brand new space station twice as voluminous as the ISS, which, Bigelow said, would weigh somewhere between 165,000 to 175,000 pounds and would be launched atop a single rocket to be inflated in space.
Also, the company is partnering with other commercial players for the launch of its modules as well as the transportation of its cargo and crew to these expandable stations in space, seeking eight missions a year, at least.
“Money has changed hands between our company and other companies,” Bigelow said, without disclosing the identities of the companies he was working with.