Las Vegas space startup Bigelow Aerospace just announced an ambitious—and gleefully money-grubbing—new plan to build at least two inflatable space stations and lob them into orbit starting just four years from now.
The stations would function as space hotels, orbital factories, and zero-gravity research labs.
Bigelow’s so-called B330 balloon-stations—named for their fully-expanded 330-cubic-meter internal volume—will ride into space packed into the tips of heavy Atlas rockets belonging to United Launch Alliance, Lockheed Martin, and Boeing’s rocket-launching consortium.
Looking positively rakish in a pinstriped suit and open collar, Bigelow Aerospace CEO Robert Bigelow heralded the company’s new ULA partnership at a packed press conference at a space conference in Colorado Springs on April 11. “We’re looking at the serious emergence of space commercialization,” Bigelow said.
He’s not kidding. If the B330s launch in 2020 as planned—and yes, that’s a big “if”—they could represent the first purely private space enterprise. Neither NASA, the U.S. government, nor any other space agency is, at present, party to the Bigelow-ULA deal—although that could change.
Indeed, Bigelow stressed that he wants to work with NASA.
The 70-year-old former hotel magnate has reportedly plowed as much as $250 million of his own fortune into his space enterprise since founding his company, which specializes in developing “habitable systems for human or robotic use in Low Earth Orbit, on the lunar surface or in deep space,” in 1999.
Initially, at least, the B330s will strictly hang out in Earth’s orbit. Boosting to positions a couple hundred miles above Earth’s surface, the B330s will expand to their full volume. Each balloon station comes complete with its own power, life-support systems, and maneuvering thrusters arranged around a central, metal frame.
Bigelow and ULA chief executive Tory Bruno, who spoke alongside the Las Vegas mogul in Colorado Springs, repeatedly declined to discuss the costs associated with the B330s and their planned launches.
But both expressed their confidence that the 12,000-cubic-foot inflatable stations would be big enough—and cheap enough to build, launch, and operate—to attract a wide range of paying tenants.
Yes, they called potential spacefaring users of the B330s “tenants.” Bigelow went on to describe the B330s’ business model as “timesharing.” Anyone with the cash to spare and a reason to be in low orbit could buy real estate on a B330 for a period of weeks or months, arriving and leaving by way of a capsule just like NASA astronauts do when they travel to the International Space Station.
The biggest renters—“anchor tenants,” Bigelow called them—would be allowed to “brand” their B330, presumably by naming it and putting a logo on it. “We would love to see Disney have a Disney space station,” Bigelow said.
Bruno said he was particularly optimistic about the possibility of space mining—or as he described it, “developing resources a week or week-and-a-half journey from where we sit here.”
“Such abundance,” Bruno breathed. “It defies the imagination.”
But large-scale space mining is a distant goal. Bigelow said he wants to attach the first B330 to the International Space Station in order to expand the venerable spacecraft’s volume by as much as a third and, perhaps, help extend the $100 billion station’s useful life beyond its planned decommissioning in 2024.
“We are hoping we can get the permissions necessary from NASA to say, ‘Yes, let’s attach it,’” Bigelow said. He added that NASA would, of course, have to pay for the privilege.
Having taken that baby-step into orbit with the first B330 in 2020, and with one more inflatable station planned for launch the same year, Bigelow said he could expand his company’s operations and build at least two new B330s at a time.
At present, ULA’s Atlas is the only Western rocket big enough to carry a B330, but the consortium is also developing a new, more powerful rocket called the Vulcan that is compatible with ULA’s new “Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage”—in essence, a refuelable, reusable rocket “space truck” that can remain in orbit for several years.
Bruno described the ACES space trucks zipping between different B330s as Bigelow sends more and more of the balloon-stations into space. “This project is allowing humanity to step off the planet in a sustained way,” Bruno crowed.
People will go to space, he said, “because there are jobs in space.”
And Bigelow wants his habitat brand to be synonymous with this new, lucrative space economy. Asked about the B330’s wider purpose, Bigelow responded half-jokingly, “Besides make a hell of a lot of money?”