NASA considers using Bigelow module for deep space missions

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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.


  • wodun

    ” The agency really has no choice, as it doesn’t have the funding to develop the necessary large spacecraft for these missions”

    Well, they would have the money if they were not spending it on SLS.

    Listened to the Space Show interview with Charlie Precourt the other day,

    It was really interesting. Precourt said that SLS was needed so the government could provide the infrastructure for space based activities beyond LEO. That SLS would be used to do something at a lagrange point and that private companies could piggy back with NASA. I do think the government can play a role but not this way.

    Under this plan, the only access to space beyond LEO comes through NASA and their SLS. NASA isn’t a business. It isn’t run like one and shouldn’t be turned into a launch monopoly. All activity would have to go through NASA and that isn’t the free market.

    NASA is putting a lot of money into SLS but the opportunity cost of what they could do with that money doesn’t seem to be considered. Rather than building rockets and strangling access to space, NASA could just be buying or building payloads. The billions spent on SLS could buy or build a lot of payloads and accomplish the same goals Precourt talked about but in a more efficient manner that actually opens up access to space without having to hitch a ride with NASA.

  • Edward

    Wodun wrote: “Precourt said that SLS was needed so the government could provide the infrastructure for space based activities beyond LEO.”

    We can only hope that such activities happen. Not only would it open up space, but it would mean that SLS was not a complete waste of money.

    However, I have not heard any plans for such infrastructure or activities, nor have I heard much in the way of ideas that propose such infrastructure. The best I have heard is a couple of dreams, here and there. It seems that SLS is being built on speculation that either NASA (read: Congress) or the private sector will come up with the money and the enthusiasm to turn a couple of dreams into reality.

    This is, at least, a step better than in the 1970s, where such hardware and launch vehicles were scrapped and the plans, ideas, and dreams of the 1960s and 1970s died a horrible death. Including O’Neill’s L5 space stations/colonies.

    I guess the SLS is a field of dreams; if they build it, the customers will come. So we hope.

    Bigelow, on the other hand, has customers lined up. Including NASA, as Robert’s post points out.

  • pzatchok

    NASA needs to get out of the way. Plus dump the SLS.

    NASA needs to become three things.

    First it needs to become the air traffic controllers of the worlds space powers. Forming the basis of a safe system for launches, spaceflights and orbits.

    Second they don’t need to build anything. They have been farming out the work since the beginning anyways. They can form standards that all those building spacecraft must follow and do final inspections and certifications but leave the manufacturing to other real companies.

    Third place real businessmen in charge departments and budgets instead of engineers. Guys who know how to cut a budget and motivate people. Stretch that dollar till it screams.

    Planetary, Solar and other real research should be placed outside of NASA and given its own budget.

    Material and other engineering should be left to private companies all on their own.

  • Edward

    Being the world’s “traffic cop” for space may be a reasonable task for NASA, but its strengths have always been exploration, research, and ingenuity. They have not done well at exploitation, including getting into space (although I will stipulate that the Saturns, designed by the army’s von Braun, were good vehicles).

    Part of the problem comes from the governmental nature of NASA. When the government directs how resources are to be used, all we get is what the government wants, not what we wanted. When commercial interests direct how resources are to be used, we tend to get what we want.

    I believe that NASA should continue the basic exploration, science, and research portions, as it is good at developing technologies, such as inflatable space habitats, and is good at probing deep into space. NASA (and its Congressional master) is not so good at implementing many of the useful technologies, such as inflatable space habitats.

    Commercial interests are far more motivated to find efficiencies that will allow for economical implementation of technology. Expending huge amounts of resources to develop a space station or a heavy launch vehicle are not cost effective, and many of the resources are expended in non-productive ways.

    Efficiency in the use of resources is one reason why Cubesats are so popular — an invention of a couple of university professors. Their productivity per resource expended is very high, compared with other satellites.

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