COLORADO SPRINGS — Bigelow Aerospace wants to berth its large B330 expandable habitat to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2020, continuing its efforts to prove the flexible-wall technology as a basis for an off-planet economy in low Earth orbit (LEO).                                                                       

With his company’s small Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) testbed still in the unpressurized “trunk” of the SpaceX Dragon commercial cargo carrier that berthed with the ISS on April 10, Robert Bigelow told reporters at the annual Space Symposium here April 11 that he has already started trying to win NASA’s permission to attach his 330-cubic-meter (12,000-cubic-ft.)  variant to the station to serve as a more commodious test facility.

Failing that, Bigelow said he still is prepared to operate the large modules as free-flyers, which was his plan when he started developing them. In either case, he and United Launch Alliance (ULA) President and CEO Tory Bruno announced a new partnership to launch the B330 on a ULA Atlas V 552, which has a payload fairing large enough to accommodate the larger module in its collapsed state.

NASA is evolving from owning everything to being a commercial customer, and a tenant,” said Bigelow, who has used funds he earned as a commercial real estate developer in Las Vegas to bankroll the expandable-habitat development. “ … We’re trying to acquire permission from NASA to be able to locate a B330 on station. If we’re able to do that and have that space to be there, we are asking also that we be given consideration to be able to commercialize time and volume.”

Bigelow conceded that it will be difficult to win clearance to berth a larger module to the space station. The safety and structural-engineering considerations will be considerable, he said, acknowledging that the berthing mechanism developed to link BEAM to the station probably will need to be “enhanced” to accommodate the larger mass of the B330.

Once it is there, Bigelow said, the B300 could serve NASA as an large space to test environmental control and life support systems (ECLSS) for long-duration human spaceflight beyond LEO, and to serve commercial customers who would pay Bigelow to use it for needs ranging from microgravity research to space tourism.

He and Bruno were vague on details of their new partnership, saying there are too many details to be worked out to be specific yet. Bruno said ULA will provide “resources” in the form of technical expertise, but declined to discuss whether it would invest cash in the partnership. Nor would the two executives say how much it will cost to launch a B330 to the station or as a free-flyer, or who would pay for it.

Bigelow described NASA as a kind of “anchor tenant” on the B330, a role it plays already in the commercial cargo and crew vehicles under development with agency seed money measured in the billions of dollars. By supporting a commercial space habitat on the scale of the B330, he said, NASA would be advancing development of a private LEO economy, in keeping with its policy of using public funds in the future to operate exploration missions deeper in the Solar System.

“This project is allowing humanity to step off of this planet in a sustained and permanent way,” Bruno said in response to a question about the public benefits of the private effort. “I cannot think of a more important and a more impactful giving to humanity than that one.”