Bigelow Aerospace, a company devoted to manufacturing inflatable space habitats, says it’s planning to put one of its modules into orbit around the Moon within the next five years. The module going to lunar space will be the B330, Bigelow’s design concept for a standalone habitat that can function autonomously as a commercial space station. The plan is for the B330 to serve as something of a lunar depot, where private companies can test out new technologies, or where astronauts can stay to undergo training for deep space missions.
“Our lunar depot plan is a strong complement to other plans intended to eventually put people on Mars,” Robert Bigelow, president of Bigelow Aerospace, said in a statement. “It will provide NASA and America with an exciting and financially practical success opportunity that can be accomplished in the short term.”
To put the habitat in lunar orbit, Bigelow is looking to get a boost from the United Launch Alliance. The B330 is slated to launch on top of ULA’s future rocket, the Vulcan, which is supposed to begin missions no earlier than 2019. The plan is for the Vulcan to loft the B330 into lower Earth orbit, where it will stay for one year to demonstrate that it works properly in space. During that time, Bigelow hopes to send supplies to the station and rotate crew members in and out every few months.
After that, it’ll be time to send the module to the Moon. ULA will launch two more Vulcan rockets, leaving both of the vehicles’ upper stages in orbit. Called ACES, for Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage, these stages can remain in space, propelling other spacecraft to farther out destinations. ULA plans to transfer all of the propellant from one ACES to the other, using the fully fueled stage to propel the B330 the rest of the way to lunar orbit.
With this announcement, it seems likely that Bigelow is trying to capitalize on recent changes in the political winds. Bigelow and ULA’s partnership comes just a few weeks after Vice President Mike Pence, the current head of the National Space Council, called for NASA to return people to the Moon. And Bigelow is making it clear that the B330 lunar depot could be incorporated into any of NASA’s future lunar plans. “[The lunar depot] will provide NASA and America with an exciting and financially practical success opportunity that can be accomplished in the short term,” Bigelow said in a statement. “This lunar depot could be deployed easily by 2022 to support the nation’s re-energized plans for returning to the Moon.”
However, it’s unclear exactly how NASA plans to return people to the Moon or how the US government is going to fund such a mission. For now, NASA is tentatively planning to create its own human space station in the vicinity of the Moon called the Deep Space Gateway, sometime in the mid- to late-2020s. It’s possible NASA could incorporate the B330 somehow into the Gateway’s development, or perhaps for other aspects of a lunar mission. Bigelow did call on NASA to invest in the concept if the space agency wants to use it in any way.
NASA & this country will need to have investment also to pay for the benefits.
— Robert Bigelow (@RobertTBigelow) October 17, 2017
Of course, ULA has to finish developing its rocket first, while Bigelow has to build its first B330 module. Last year, the Bigelow said it planned to build two full-scale B330 stations by 2019, which should be ready to launch by 2020. Up until now, Bigelow has tested out an experimental habitat module in space called the BEAM, or the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module. The BEAM launched to the International Space Station last year, where it was then attached to the station’s Tranquility Node. It was originally supposed to stay at the ISS for just two years, but NASA recently said it’s thinking about extending the habitat’s stay.
A key aspect of both the BEAM and the future B330 is their expandability. The habitats are meant to launch deflated, taking up less room on a rocket, and then inflate once they reach space, providing more overall volume for humans to live and work. The B330’s name hints at its overall capacity when expanded: 330 cubic meters of volume. Bigelow says the habitat can accommodate up to six crew members at a time.