Since 1998, Robert Bigelow’s aerospace company has sought to develop a new means of placing large habitable structures into orbit. Wednesday’s announcement is expected to advance those plans further. Image Credit: Bigelow Aerospace

NASA and Bigelow to Discuss New Space Station Module

By Ben Evans

After several years of research and development and intense speculation, NASA has awarded a $17.8 million contract to Bigelow Aerospace to provide a new expandable module to the International Space Station. The torus-shaped Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) will demonstrate the benefits of this space habitat technology for future exploration and commercial endeavors. According to NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver, the new module “represents a step forward in cutting-edge technology that can allow humans to thrive in space safely and affordably”. She added that the new module would also “herald important progress in U.S. commercial space innovation”. A press conference to announce the plan is scheduled at Bigelow’s Las Vegas headquarters on Wednesday 16 January.

Founded by Budget Suites of America hotel magnate and aerospace entrepreneur Robert Bigelow in 1998, Bigelow Aerospace has for more than a decade pioneered the construction of inflatable modules for scientific and commercial activity in the microgravity environment. By 2010, the startup company had received a total financial injection of $180 million from its founder, who has repeatedly stated his intent to increase this to around $500 million by 2015 in order to achieve the launch of full-scale hardware. The BEAM mission is classed as a ‘sub-scale demonstration’ of Bigelow’s expandable module technology.

According to Jason Crusan, chief technologist for space operations within the Space Operations Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters, quoted by Space.com’s Leonard David in a January 2011 article, “we’re talking about a project that would take about 24 months from go-ahead to the module being on-orbit”. Crusan added that BEAM would be “pretty fast-paced” and would be carried into orbit under the auspices of NASA’s 2008 Commercial Resupply Services contract, pointing to either SpaceX or Orbital Sciences as the launch provider. Although exact details remain sketchy, the Space.com article suggested that BEAM would probably be robotically berthed at one of the interfaces of the International Space Station’s Tranquility node. As well as providing much-needed logistics and stowage support for the multi-national outpost, BEAM is expected to offer data on the performance of non-rigid space station modules with human occupants for the first time. It has also been noted that the new module could serve as a centrifuge demonstration model for NASA’s hypothetical Nautilux-X deep-space exploration vehicle.

Read more: NASA and Bigelow to Discuss New Space Station Module « AmericaSpace.

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