The latest space-piercing concept launching from Earth: a commercial, one-rocket space station that could carry astronauts to low-earth orbit, the Moon and even Mars.
This is the ambitious new plan of Bigelow Aerospace, coming on the heels of a government proposed defunding of the International Space Station (ISS) by 2025 and turning it over to private space companies. The National Space Council will further discuss these plans on Wednesday from Kennedy Space Center.
The newly created company, Bigelow Space Operations, expands the horizon on who can fund astronauts, beyond NASA – corporations, governments and, perhaps, even hotels to host space tourists.
“Our markets, we don’t look at tourism as a particularly deep market,” said company founder and CEO Robert Bigelow. "What we’ve anticipated is that we would be very involved in helping other countries in establishing their space programs. The corporation market is obviously huge. But the national markets are very important and we hope to place their payloads in low earth orbit."
And the orbiting outpost where these customers live: the B330.
Bigelow gave Fox News an exclusive look inside the company’s headquarters in North Las Vegas.
Bigelow aims for his B330 to be the world’s first one-rocket space station, piggybacking on the recent success of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket from Kennedy Space Center, the most powerful rocket currently on the planet, times two. A modified Falcon Heavy or another powerful launch system would also work.
The B330 is a large, expandable space station, made of multiple levels of soft fabric and better at protection from micrometeoroids than the current “aluminum cans” on the ISS. Inside an expanded B330 would be a self-sustained outpost with 12 ecosystems, living and research room for 6 people and 330 cubic meters of space.
Bigelow plans to spend millions of dollars this year to investigate the potential market for this, in light of the fact that China, with its own space station plan, is already courting and “corralling” half-a-dozen space-curious countries and already locking them up with contractual commitments.
For the potential activity performed on a B330, the new company will be exploring other markets beyond traditional, laboratory science, such as pharmaceutical research.
“It has to have a payload that has a science application to it,” said Bigelow. "Frankly, we think that all of those diverse areas are a lot more voluminous that. There might be another holy grail out there that could be a game changer, a space changer, for low-earth orbit.”
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The B330 would work like this:
The condensed space station would be packed tightly atop a rocket and deployed in space remotely.
A follow-up rocket with a SpaceX Dragon or Boeing Starliner crew capsule carrying Bigelow employees would rendezvous with the B330, hook up to it, and the crew then expands and prepares it for use. That crew then returns to earth.
Then, a third rocket takes up another capsule with the B330’s paying customers, who will live, work and research in space until they climb back into their capsule to come home.
On a smaller scale, this concept is already in use. Two years ago, a NASA cargo mission brought up a demonstration BEAM to the ISS, the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module. The ISS’s robotic arm put it into place, opened the hatch and “inflated” or pressurized it. Resident astronauts living on the ISS have been periodically venturing inside the BEAM.
Bigelow says two B330’s are ready for launch in 2021. After that, there could eventually be dozens of these space stations orbiting earth.
Perhaps even more ambitious, Bigelow Aerospace aims to manufacture one, giant, single space station called the Olympus — also launched on a single, giant rocket — that will contain nearly two-and-a-half times the pressurized volume of the current ISS, inside of which, about two dozen people could live. For that, a new manufacturing facility would need to be built, possibly in Florida, near the historic Kennedy Space Center, where in 1969, America launched a space ship to the Moon.
“If we don’t see, by the end of this year, a viable business case,” says Bigelow, "with either the corporate world or national world, that would be the worst-case scenario…if in fact the business simply weren’t there, that NASA wasn’t interested or other partners would already be spoken for.”
Fox News National Correspondent Phil Keating will broadcast live from the company’s space operations center throughout the day Wednesday.