Mike Gold, director of Washington operations for Bigelow Aerospace, spent much of his 45-minute speech at the International Space Development Conference (ISDC) in Chicago talking about the history of Bigelow’s development of inflatable (or, as the company prefers, “expandable”) modules, including the successful launch of Genesis I and II in 2006 and 2007, respectively; familiar ground for most who have followed the company. He also discussed the company’s future plans, including how NASA’s proposed new direction in human spaceflight may directly and indirectly affect the company.
Bigelow’s plans to launch a series of larger habitable modules, starting with the 180-cubic-meter Sundancer, are dependent on the introduction of commercial crew transportation services, a key element of that plan. “The long pole in the tent for our operations is that while we could have Sundancer ready very quickly, we don’t have a way to get people back and forth,” he said. Without it, the company’s investment “will be for naught”. He believes that commercial crew services will be as safe, if not safer, than government systems, as companies have a lot more riding on the line than a government agency: while NASA could (and has) survived fatal accidents in the past, a company could lose hundreds of millions of dollars or go our of business entirely in such an event. “We’re more incentivized to be safe than a government agency because we have a lot more riding on it.”
However, Bigelow is a bit particular about who they work with on commercial crew. “We love SpaceX,” he said, “but the rocket we’re most excited about, at least in the near-term, is the Atlas 5.” He cited the rocket’s 100-percent record of success since its introduction in 2002 as the reason they prefer it over the as-yet-untried Falcon 9. “If your goal is safety and reliability, this is the system you would go to.”
Another area where NASA’s new plans intersect more directly with Bigelow’s plans is the agency’s focus on “flagship technologies”, including inflatable modules. “The good news is that NASA is paying attention to the technology,” Gold said. “The bad news is that NASA is paying attention to the technology.” He said the company would be responding to a new request for information (RFI) from NASA on the proposed technology demonstration program, and that Bigelow has been “actively” talking with NASA about building something called a “Bigelow Aerospace Module”, or BAM, that could be installed on the ISS.
One criticism the company has of NASA’s interest in inflatables is that the RFI talks about adding a “full scale” module to the station. He said even adding a small module to the station involves a lot of issues such as structural fatigue and outgassing. “I’m not sure whether you could safely put a full-scale inflatable on the ISS,” Gold said. A free-flyer would be much safer and cost effective, he said. Asked after his presentation whether there was the feasibility and/or interest in putting a Sundancer module on the ISS, he again raised the technical concerns about adding a relatively large module to the station. The BAM concept would be closer in size to the Genesis demonstration modules, he said, more like “a closet” than a full-fledged module.