A model of Bigelow's proposed lunar base, via Bigelow Airspace
Of all the science fiction staples that are slowly creeping into reality, a Moon base is high on the list. And there’s no shortage of creative ideas, from habitats built on Earth and launched to the Moon to a 3D printed station made from lunar materials. Now, Bigelow Aerospace is getting into the Moon base game with one of its trademark low cost, inflatable designs.
Bigelow Aerospace is no stranger to inflatable space modules. The company made its mark in the inflatable world after it sent two inflatable habitat modules to the International Space Station in 2006 and 2007. They are both prototypes, called Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, and they are still in orbit.
for now, Bigelow’s focus is on the Moon. And it’s fair game to private companies as far as NASA is concerned. Administrator Charlie Bolden said earlier this month that NASA wouldn’t be taking the lead in lunar exploration and had no qualms with other companies filling that role. The space agency is firmly committed to its own goal of identifying, capturing, corralling, and exploring an asteroid by 2025.
As per the agreement between Bigelow and NASA, the aerospace company will begin by laying out its plan. It will first identify the companies and technologies that could move this project forward then examine the specific scenarios that this technology could support. This first phase of study is expected to take 100 days, and the second phase 120 days. And so far NASA isn’t putting up any money.
Robert Bigelow, for whom Bigelow Aerospace is named, made millions off his Budget Suites of America hotel chain. After turning from hotels to space, he became fixated on the Moon; he's been running his own crude preliminary studies on a moon base for years and has no intention of stopping.
In addition to a habitat on the Moon in Earth orbit, Bigelow is also interested in the possibility of building a permanent fueling station at one of the Earth-Moon system’s LaGrange points.
The inflatable portion of the ISS is also set to get bigger. In January, Bigelow and NASA signed a deal that will see the aerospace company deliver a larger inflatable module, the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module or BEAM, to the ISS as part of a 2015 SpaceX cargo resupply mission.
And, of course, this isn’t a new idea. NASA is as familiar with inflatable modules as Bigelow. The agency considered, but never built, an inflatable space station in the early 1960s.
Eventually, Bigelow hopes to make that decades old NASA dream a reality by building an inflatable commercial space station and putting it into orbit. A pair of BA330 modules, each with a livable space of 330 cubic meters, will be used to create an “Alpha Station” capable of supporting a crew of 12.
Of course, if and when this station will be launched depends on how regularly crews would visit, meaning it’s likely we’ll see this station’s launch coincide with the advent of commercial low Earth orbital flight in the coming decade. So it’s plausible, but in the preliminary stages for now.
The agreement between Bigelow and NASA is aimed at studying ways in which private ventures in space could contribute to overall human space exploration. Bigelow is joining the other players that are starting to really open space up for the everyman.