Click the arrow to watch the April 11, 2016 media event.
Bigelow Aerospace and United Launch Alliance announced on April 11 an agreement “to develop and deploy habitable volumes in Low Earth orbit (LEO). The volumes will be based on the Bigelow Aerospace B330 expandable module with the initial launch to orbit in 2020 on ULA's Atlas V 552 configuration launch vehicle.”
“We are exploring options for the location of the initial B330 including discussions with NASA on the possibility of attaching it to the International Space Station (ISS),” said Robert Bigelow, founder and president of Bigelow Aerospace. “In that configuration, the B330 will enlarge the station’s volume by 30% and function as a multipurpose testbed in support of NASA’s exploration goals as well as provide significant commercial opportunities. The working name for this module is XBASE or Expandable Bigelow Advanced Station Enhancement.”
“When looking for a vehicle to launch our large, unique spacecraft, ULA provides a heritage of solid mission success, schedule certainty and a cost effective solution,” continued Mr. Bigelow.
Transportation to the B330 will be provided by NASA’s commercial crew providers, whether the station is free flying or attached to the ISS. The traffic to just one module will more than double the number of crew flights per year.
During a public event April 8 at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, Bigelow said he had “tacit approval” from NASA to proceed with finding government and commercial users for the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) that launched that afternoon from Cape Canaveral in the trunk of a SpaceX Dragon.
The Bigelow/ULA partnership seems to shut out SpaceX from all but deliveries to Bigelow facilities.
During the April 22 media event in Colorado Springs, Bigelow said that relationships are important to him, so he'd prefer to maintain one relationship with a launch company than look around.
He cited the size of the Atlas V 552 fairing as the only one large enough to handle a compressed B330.
The Bigelow B330 web page does not provide the length of a compressed B330, although multiple web sites state the dimensions are 13.7 meters in length by 6.7 meters wide.
According to the ULA Atlas V web page, the company offers fairings anywhere from 12.0 meters to 26.5 meters.
The SpaceX Falcon Heavy web page states its fairing is 13.1 meters high by 5.2 meters wide.
One could speculate if SpaceX would develop a larger fairing for Bigelow, or if other factors led to the ULA launch partnership. The first test flight of the Falcon Heavy, according to recent statements by SpaceX executives, could come by the end of this year, although the date continues to slip. It may be that Mr. Bigelow preferred to go with a company that has technology flying now, rather than wait for an untested vehicle.
An artist's concept of a Bigelow B330 orbital station complex. Image source: Bigelow Aerospace.
For United Launch Alliance, this is one giant leap for a company founded in 2005 essentially to provide Boeing and Lockheed Martin a government launch monopoly. The arrival of SpaceX, Blue Origin and other NewSpace companies broke that monopoly. To survive, ULA is trying to change its culture — developing a new rocket called Vulcan, partnering with Blue Origin to develop a new engine, and now the Bigelow partnership.
Attaching B330s to the ISS may be difficult not because of technicalities, but because of politics.
NASA most likely would have to obtain approval from the station's partner agencies — Russia, Japan, Canada and the European Space Agency. The agencies currently are in the process of approving ISS operations from the current 2020 deadline to 2024. Mr. Bigelow stated during the media event he hopes his habitats can extend the station's life beyond 2024, suggesting that the ISS become a permanent hub. One might think of how cities and towns grew up around forts.
ULA is a risk-averse company, a trait they often proclaim when comparing their services to SpaceX. If they're all in with Bigelow, then they must see viability in Mr. Bigelow's vision and his products.