Bigelow Aerospace has raced through the initial phase of a first-of-its-kind Space Act Agreement (SAA) intended to provide NASA with new insight into private sector capabilities and motivations for expanding human space activities beyond Earth orbit, including the lunar realm.

Signed at the end of March, the two-phase exercise should be complete by early November and provide NASA with a range of potential options for folding U.S. and foreign companies into a broad, NASA-led development strategy to carry out the asteroid-retrieval mission outlined in the agency’s $17.7 billion 2014 budget proposal, and eventually send explorers to Mars, according to William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations.

Robert Bigelow, the Las Vegas-based company’s co-founder and president, said during a May 23 teleconference with Gerstenmaier that 20 firms, some from sectors as remote from traditional aerospace as agriculture and pharmaceuticals, expressed interest. Some have names as familiar as Boeing Co. and SpaceX. Others represent Middle Eastern and Japanese concerns that seek greater access to low Earth orbit for research and possible manufacturing activities.

The completed “Gate 1,” or first phase, report should be ready for public release within several weeks.

“This gives us a chance to kind of step back and do a bigger view of our planning and not do it in our own little stove pipes,” Gerstenmaier told the teleconference hosted by Bigelow Aerospace. “We are actually reaching out as we start to formulate our thinking.”

NASA’s latest deep-space vision would robotically retrieve a small asteroid and place it in a stable lunar orbit by 2021, potentially in time for the first piloted test flight of the agency’s new Space Launch System and Orion crew vehicle to visit with astronauts.

Bigelow’s own interests include the launching of a commercial space station, possibly in 2016, based on the inflatable module development work that NASA carried out in the late 1990s. In December, the company was awarded a $17.8 million NASA contract to test a prototype module on the International Space Station, a step in Bigelow’s longer-term goal of establishing a lunar base with inflatable habitats.

“The theme of [Gate 1] was to acquire as much information as possible on what the private sector is already doing,” Bigelow said. “If they are already investing their own capital and efforts in certain areas of hardware and missions, isn’t there an opportunity in there for NASA to benefit so that NASA does not have to pay the perpetual heavy burden of research and development costs?”

The SAA is an indication that NASA is prepared to broaden its perspective on private sector capabilities in areas as fundamental as transportation and life support systems, Gerstenmaier said.

“We are realizing there are other ways of doing business,” he said. “We are learning that some of the requirements we put in place don’t need to be there. We don’t need to design everything to aerospace standards. The right mix between those two is something we can gain out of this public/private partnership that will help us move forward.”