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The competition heats up: Rather than build something in-house for gobs of money and decades of work, NASA is considering using Bigelow Aerospace’s largest inflatable modules for its deep space missions.
What has happened is that NASA has signed a joint agreement with Bigelow to study the possibility of using Bigelow’s B330 module as a transport habitat on long flights. The agency really has no choice, as it doesn’t have the funding to develop the necessary large spacecraft for these missions, and Bigelow can provide them to it for much less.
This description of the background of Bigelow’s inflatable modules illustrates why NASA can’t build these itself:
The B330 evolved from the Genesis I and II modules that Bigelow Aerospace had launched into space. Those technology demonstrators were born out of the NASA project known as TransHab. The TransHab was an inflatable module designed for the ISS but was ultimately cancelled in 1999 due to budget constraints. The module would have provided a 4 level 27.5 feet (8.4 meter) diameter habitat for the astronauts.
After TransHab was cancelled, Bigelow worked with NASA on a technology transfer, giving Bigelow Aerospace exclusive rights to the technology. Using this technology, Bigelow designed, built and launched two technology demonstrators. They are still on orbit today. Genesis I was launched in 2006 with it’s sister ship launching in 2007. Both ships tested flight operations processes and on-board electronics and have performed above design specifications. [emphasis mine]
Unlike NASA, as a private company Bigelow was able to build this technology quickly and at a low cost. With the new agreement, the goal will be study the operation of a B330 in independent flight in low Earth orbit. Whether an actual B330 will be build and launched however is not yet clear.