In January, NASA announced it had reached a deal with Bigelow Aerospace to fly a prototype expandable module, called the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), to the ISS in 2015. The agreement was hailed as a major partnership for both organizations: NASA gets to test technology that could be useful for future deep space exploration, and Bigelow gets to show off its technology before flying larger, standalone commercial modules. However, the two organizations may have even bigger plans in store.
On Thursday, Las Vegas City Life columnist George Knapp wrote that Bigelow and NASA have reached an “adventurous deal” that “reads like a Kubrick screenplay or an Arthur C. Clarke story,” he claimed. The two have agreed to study “a series of strategic goals and timetables” for future space exploration, up to and including bases on the Moon, led by private enterprise. “Bigelow’s company would become a clearinghouse of sorts,” Knapp wrote. “Its first assignment: to identify which other companies would be most valuable for NASA’s long-range goals.”
Knapp’s column was based on an interview he did with Robert Bigelow when Knapp was a guest host on the “Coast to Coast” radio program on the night of March 31; a recording of the space portion of the interview is also available here (the interview also touched on Bigelow’s other major interest, UFOs.) Bigelow offered more details about the agreement in that interview. “The purpose of the agreement is to facilitate and explore, in a manner that can facilitate commercial goals and objectives as well as the public goals and objectives, to work together to provide facilities to allow people to work and live in space beyond LEO,” Bigelow said. That, he said, includes facilities in the Earth-Moon L1 and L2 points “or even a lunar base.”
“It’s a classic opportunity for a very logical partnership to occur,” Bigelow said. “Bigelow Aerospace is kind of being used as the tool to gather together a number of major aerospace companies in this country and create an identification of the folks who can contribute what kind of hardware and identify timeframes for that and costs, and then orchestrate the various kinds of missions that otherwise NASA would not be able to afford.”
Bigelow’s comments suggested that the agreement is, at least for now, a study with NASA on the potential capabilities of the private sector to support such development. The first phase is a 100-day study to identify the various companies and assets that could be used. That would be followed by a 120-day “mission scenario” study. That second study would deliver to NASA “a variety of scenarios that that the private sector says it will support financially and timewise, and deliver these on a fixed-price basis,” he said, including options for NASA to buy or lease those facilities, as well as allowing other commercial use of them. That effort, he said, would also seek to make use of NASA’s Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System (SLS) booster by providing new destinations for them.
Bigelow suggested that the goal of this was to enable a lunar base, something that has been in his company’s long-term plans to the point of constructing models of such a facility that make use of expandable habitats (see photo above.) “This agreement is coupled with private sector long-term plans of beyond low Earth orbit operations, including those of Bigelow Aerospace to place a base on the surface of the Moon,” he said, stating that he was reading from the agreement. “We’re making no bones about it, that that’s what we’re out to try to accomplish.”
At the end of the March 31 interview, Knapp asked Bigelow when the agreement would be made public. Bigelow said there were five dates under consideration for a press conference at NASA Headquarters to publicly reveal the agreement. Three of those dates—April 10, 11, and 12—have already passed. The other two are coming up this week: April 17 and 18. However, those dates conflict with the planned first launch of Orbital Sciences Corporation’s Antares rocket, currently slated for the late afternoon of the 17th; holding a press conference the same day could distract from a rocket whose development NASA helped support. So we may need to wait a little while longer to find out more details about this agreement between NASA and Bigelow.