The commercial space station company Bigelow Aerospace has now sued NASA for $1 million, claiming that the agency has refused to pay it for work done.
Bigelow Aerospace said it entered into an agreement with NASA on the B330 project in August 2016 to perform and complete a certain long-term pressure leak test on its prototype. The purpose of the test was to demonstrate that the B330 meets NASA’s standards of construction and reliability.
According to the lawsuit, Bigelow Aerospace was required to perform a leak test on its module and “provide certain periodic test reports” to NASA. The reports were scheduled and were required to summarize the results of the test, specifically whether the B330 had met certain standards set by NASA. “Importantly, the Contract contains no requirement that Bigelow Aerospace had to provide NASA with continuous and/or raw” data, the lawsuit alleges.
Bigelow Aerospace said NASA breached its contract with the agency by refusing to pay the full amount to the company. The company said that its damages are in excess of $1 million because it had to hire attorneys to bring the lawsuit forward.
According to the suit, multiple attempts were made between January and February to demand payment. The lawsuit said that NASA’s attorney requested raw test data from Bigelow’s testing carried out under the contract as a prerequisite of being paid the amount owed. “However, this requirement was not a term of the Contract, and was an attempt by NASA to place additional requirements on Bigelow Aerospace that had not been part of the parties’ agreement,” according to the lawsuit.
Until 2016, when Bigelow’s prototype BEAM module was installed on ISS, this company seemed the world’s unmatched leader in the construction of private commercial space station modules. It had already flown two prototypes successfully, and then built BEAM for NASA in only two years for a mere $17 million.
Since then it seems Bigelow has been stalled by Washington politics and some insider maneuvering at NASA. In January 2020 NASA picked Axiom to build the first commercial operational private modules to be attached to ISS, not Bigelow. I wondered then why Bigelow had been bypassed by a company that had never built anything. Noting how Axiom had numerous NASA insiders in its management, many with links to Boeing, I concluded:
In other words, it appears it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. This is not to say that the individuals and companies listed above do not know much, but that [Axiom’s] real experience with building private modules is lacking. Boeing has built NASA’s modules, but those were for the government and were therefore costly. I have grave doubts they could do this inexpensively, though I could be wrong.
With Bigelow having proved it could be done, the insiders in DC and NASA had apparently teamed up to use that knowledge and have it pay off for themselves. I was then skeptical about whether they could build something as Bigelow had, quickly, efficient, and inexpensively. Instead, I worried that they would do as old-time NASA insiders have done for decades, focus on getting big NASA contracts while gold-plating their work.
At this moment it is not clear whether Axiom will do this, as their modules have not yet flown, and it is only a little more than a year since this deal was struck. It is encouraging, however, that in the meantime they have arranged a private tourist mission to ISS next year on a Dragon capsule. This suggests they are aiming for commercial profit, not those juicy fat pork-laden NASA contracts.
As for Bigelow, I suspect he decided to sue because he finally realized he has nothing to lose. His chances of winning a new contract at NASA is probably slim, so why not make sure he can get paid for the work he has already done.