After their initial flurry of activity launches over 7 years ago Bigelow Aerospace has become rather quiet, cancelling its 2 further prototypes and pursuing other activities. Presumably this was because they were a little ahead of their time as there just wasn’t any private (or public even) launch systems available to take would be space tourists to any of their modules. This, combined with them reducing their staff a couple years ago, meant that their requirements to deliver additional prototypes into space were dramatically reduced and they have instead been focusing on developing their technology with NASA. Now it seems, after almost a decade since their first launch, Bigelow will be making their return into space next year with the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM).
The BEAM is probably derived from Bigelow’s Galaxy craft as it shares much of the same characteristics as that prototype was slated to have. Comparatively it’s a small part of the ISS, coming in with 16m³ worth of liveable volume, but it will contain all the elements necessary to support astronauts on orbit. For the most part it will be a demonstration and testing module, designed to measure things like leakage rates, radiation exposure levels and testing all the systems required to maintain it. The total mission duration is set for 2 years with the astronauts only entering it on occasion. The results from this will likely end up heavily influencing Bigelow’s next module, the behemoth of the BA330.
The total cost of the module is, by ISS standards, a steal coming in at just over $17 million. Although this doesn’t include the launch cost which, considering that it’s on the back of a Falcon-9, would likely be around $54 million putting the total cost at about $71 million. Still even if the further missions doubled the cost of the module you’d still be looking at an incredibly cheap way to add liveable volume to the ISS, something which is very much at a premium up there. More though it makes Bigelow’s Commercial Space Station seem that much more feasible as previously the amount of capital required just to get their modules into space was very cost prohibitive.
The BEAM module won’t be a one shot wonder, however. Bigelow plans to build another one of the modules to serve as an airlock on its future space station which would allow up to 3 astronauts (or more likely, space tourists) to space walk at a time. The ISS can currently handle only 2 astronauts at a time so it’s definitely a step up and I can imagine NASA acquiring another BEAM type module in the future if they were looking to expand the ISS’ operations. It might not sound like much but it could drastically reduce the amount of spacewalking time that astronauts have to undertake, which can sometimes be up to 10 hours at a time.
It’s great to see Bigelow back in the game again with firm timelines for delivering modules into space. The fact that they’ll be delivering capability to the ISS is even better as there’s huge potential for NASA to increase the lifetime of our only space station using Bigelow’s technology. Whilst no space launch date is ever set in stone I’m hopeful that we’ll see BEAM attached to the ISS in the not too distant future and, hopefully, the BA330 not too long thereafter.
If you wander over to the Space section of this blog you won’t have to look far to figure out which company I have a huge man crush on. Whilst SpaceX might be the toast of the private space flight industry thanks to their incredibly impressive achievements and lofty goals they’re far from the only player in the game and they’re really only currently focused on getting cargo and people into orbit, keeping them there is still someone else’s job. This isn’t to say that no one is working on solving that particular problem however and Bigelow Aerospace, a company I’ve mentioned in passing a couple times, is one such company.
Bigelow Aerospace is the brain child of Robert Bigelow funded primarily from the fortune he made from his ownership stake in the Budget Suites of America hotel chain. Unlike most private space companies which are primarily focusing on the launch side of the equation Bigelow is instead focusing solely on the staying up there part, developing technology for a new kind of space station that promises to deliver much larger usable volumes at a fraction of the cost of traditional space station modules. They’re in fact so far along the development path that they already have 2 of their modules Genesis I and Genesis II in orbit right now and they’ve been there for the better part of 6 and 5 years respectively.
Their modules are based off of a pretty novel idea that NASA was developing back in the early 1990s. Dubbed TransHab the idea was to be able to build modules that were of a certain size when launched but could then be inflated once in orbit to provide much more room. Additionally the inflatable design means that it’s much more resistant to micrometeorite impacts as the outer surface will flex, reducing risks to the crew and lowering ongoing maintenance costs. Unfortunately due to the budget overruns of the International Space Station project the TransHab was ultimately cancelled but Bigelow licensed the technology from NASA and set about creating his own versions of them.
The goal for Bigelow was to start up his own private space stations in orbit, essentially extending his hotel chain to outer space. Whilst they’ve had functional verification of their systems for a long time now their biggest issue was a lack of transportation methods in order to get people up there. Seats on Soyuz craft are now going for upwards of $50 million dollars and Bigelow’s plans just aren’t feasible at that price point. Indeed the current lack of usable alternatives prompted Bigelow to slash its staffing by over half at the end of 2011 although they have begun rehiring now in preparation for the availability of such services coming online in 2016.
What is pretty incredible though was the recent news that Bigelow has won a contract with NASA to provide an inflatable module for the International Space Station. Whilst there’s scant details about what the module will actually be (that’s apparently scheduled for a press conference today) it’s a safe bet that it’d be something like their planned BA-330 although it’s entirely possible that they might go for gold and debut their giant BA-2100 (pictured above) which would almost triple the current liveable volume of the ISS. It may seem counter-intuitive for NASA to buy their own technology back off a private manufacturer but Bigelow has invested some $180 million into getting the project this far, a sum that I’m sure no one at NASA wanted to spend when they already have so much invested in rigid modules.
The amount of innovation we’re seeing in the private space industry is simply staggering as we’re fast approaching the point where the only thing that stands between you and your own private space station is the capital required. Sure that’s still no small barrier but the fact that we’re commoditizing space travel means that it’ll soon be something that will be within reach for all of us, much like the commercialization of air flight last century. NASA’s contract with Bigelow is proof that the nascent space company is at the point where it’s technology is ready for prime time and I can’t wait to see one of their modules up in space.
One of the major criticisms I often see leveled at the fledgling private space industry is that it focuses far too heavily on touristy sub-orbital junkets. When the total time spent in space is approximately 5 minutes I can see why critics are quick to jump to this conclusion as you wouldn’t think there would be a lot of experiments you could do in such a short time frame. Still as I’ve written previously there are many experiments that have been ignored for the longest time simply because they fall outside the normal parameters regular space missions and are impossible to reach with other equipment. Sub-orbital flights provide access to a region of space that’s been largely ignored due to this and with many private companies making headway into this field scientists are starting to line up for the chance to study the boundary of space.
Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) has recently become extremely interested in the opportunity to conduct experiments in sub-orbital space. They’re quite a big player when it comes to space having been involved in many recent major discoveries so it comes as little surprise that they’d be amongst the first to line up for tickets into sub-orbital space. What caught me by surprise however was just how serious they are about it booking tickets not only with the current leader in sub-orbital flights but also securing spots on the as of yet unproven XCOR Lynx:
The California-based spaceflight company XCOR Aerospace has inked a deal to take scientists and their experiments on six flights to suborbital space on a two-seat space plane.
The Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), a non-profit research organization, has purchased six trips aboard XCOR Aerospace’s Lynx vehicle, XCOR officials announced Thursday (Feb. 24). The Institute announced today (Feb. 28) that it also signed a deal with rival private spaceship company Virgin Galactic for rides aboard that firm’s SpaceShipTwo space plane.
These contracts mark a first for the resusable suborbital launch vehicle industry, officials said.
This shows that sub-orbital space is definitely not just a playground for rich tourists and presents many research opportunities for scientists to exploit. The initial payloads look pretty interesting too focusing on atmospheric imaging, biomedical modelling and studying planetary regolith in micro gravity. As the sub-orbital industry matures I’m sure there will be a bevy of experiments that will start to emerge, especially considering the relatively cheap access price that’s well within the bounds of many scientific grants.
Sub-orbital flights are the stepping stone to creating a fully fledged private space industry and the interest that’s been generated by both future tourists and scientists shows there’s demand for such services. Virgin Galactic has gone on record in the past stating that should SpaceShipTwo prove to be successful the next incarnation will be a fully orbital ship. Couple that with companies like Bigelow Aerospace and we’ve already got the beginnings of a future where space travel is part of everyday life, just like air travel has become. Sure we’re still decades away from realizing anything like that but such a dream just keeps becoming more and more realistic everyday and I can’t tell you how excited that makes me.
It’s not everyday that you get a company coming forward and firmly stating that they are going to provide orbital capabilities to anyone who has the money. Space Adventures is the only company thus far that has put a paying private space tourists into orbital space, and they are technically just a travel agent. Just recently though we’ve had another company lay its goals on the table, and boy are they shooting high:
The previously top secret reusable reentry vehicle for the Soviet “Almaz” manned military space station will form the backbone of a major new U.S./Russian commercial venture to carry paying research crews on one week missions into Earth orbit by 2013.
The reusable reentry vehicle (RRV) venture is being announced today at MAKS, the annual Moscow Air Show at Ramenskoye air base.
The project is led by Excalibur Almaz Limited (EA), an international space exploration company that has teamed with the Almaz RRV spacecraft manufacturer and other Russian and U.S. companies. EA is led by Art Dula founder and CEO of the venture.
I’d heard about the vehicle they’re planning to use before, mostly because it is to date the only known space vehicle that was weaponized. The Outer Space Treaty restricts the use of most weapons in space however conventional weapons, such as the aircraft gun on the Almaz station Salyut 3, are still allowed. For the most part this would restrict anything in earth orbit to blowing up other stuff in orbit which is not the most useful thing you can do. In essence you would be creating a debris field that you would then have to work around and it’s much easier (and cheaper) to take out a satellite with ground based lasers or missiles. Other than that the capsule is interesting because of its design.
Russia as a space nation is known for producing reliable vehicles that can only ever be used once. Whilst on the surface this may seem wasteful it does help to keep costs down as reusable architecture, like the Shuttle, requires a lot more work to ensure the structures are reusable. Almaz is different as on the surface it looks like a typical Apollo capsule whilst being reusable, something which a budding space company would require in order to keep costs down. Excalibur Almaz has already bought two complete hulls and the interesting part is that Russia is quite capable of making more of them. This is in stark contrast to other capsules of its time period like Apollo or even Skylab, as all the tooling and manufacturing lines are gone.
There is just one slight detail that’s bothering me about the whole proposal; they are lacking a launch system. Whilst there are many companies that would be quite capable of launching this thing into orbit it appears that the sourcing of a launch vehicle will be left up to an exercise for the purchaser. Whilst I don’t doubt the capabilities of the companies like SpaceX to deliver such a craft into orbit the announcement of a new “orbital” space company is a bit of a stretch when realistically they’re just giving you the tin can that will keep you safe. Additionally the man rating of rockets is well, rocket science and choosing a launch vehicle instead of letting the buyer source one himself would make the whole operation a lot safer.
The aggressive time schedule of 2013 is something that I will be watching closely. By that time I would expect that the SpaceX Dragon would have conducted several flight tests and would be their main competitor. However SpaceX haven’t announced any plans to use the Dragon for space tourism purposes and the design of the capsule reflects that (lack of windows and large interior volumes). This doesn’t rule them out though as Bigelow Aerospace will eagerly take the opportunity to use the Dragon to ferry its customers up to their space hotels, something which the craft is completely capable of doing. Actually it looks like the future is going to be filled with many companies fighting it out in the private orbital space tourism industry.
Maybe, just maybe in our lifetimes the everyman will get his chance to go to space.
This week has been quite busy for those of us with a keen interest in space. NASA is currently putting on quite a show for the 40th anniversary of the Apollo launches (which I will dedicate a post to later) but also we’ve been privy to see not one but to launches. The first is the launch of shuttle mission STS-127:
The main focus of this mission is installing the last part of the Japanese section of the ISS (Kibo). It will allow the astronauts to perform experiments that are directly exposed to space which up until now they have had a limited capacity to do. There’s also a few housekeeping things like spare parts and extra batteries as well as a couple satellites. Whilst this isn’t as exciting as the last couple missions it does signify a big step forward in the capabilities of the station, which makes crazy talk like this a little disturbing:
After more than a decade of construction, it is nearing completion and finally has a full crew of six astronauts. The last components should be installed by the end of next year.
“In the first quarter of 2016, we’ll prep and de-orbit the spacecraft,” says NASA’s space station program manager, Michael T. Suffredini.
With another 5 more missions planned to complete the station somewhere in 2011 this would mean 5 years of a fully functioning space station before it’s plunged back to earth. With so much invested in the station from so many countries I can’t help but feel that this statement is a little short sited. Sure, NASA has footed most of the bill for most of the station but I’m sure most of the other countries would be looking to keep the station up there for a while longer. I’m sure as the time gets closer we’ll see more interest in keeping it up there, maybe even Bigelow wil take an interest.
The second, and probably most exciting, launch we’ve seen this week was SpaceX’s first successful launch of a private payload into space:
The payload launched was RazakSAT a Malaysian remote sensing satellite. It’s a great success for SpaceX and shows that they are capable of launching payloads with much less overhead then current companies. This bodes very well for their scheduled Falcon 9 test later this year and the private space industry as a whole. With Bigelow providing somewhere to go and SpaceX the means to get there we’ll soon be seeing the first fully privately funded space stations flown to by private companies, something back when Apollo was first conceived was still considered science fiction.
It’s been a great week for me personally as I’ve seen news reports of space peppered through the mainstream news. That says a lot coming from someone in Australia, considering that the Australian populace at large doesn’t have much of an active interest in space. With the culmination of the anniversary events for Apollo coming next week I’m hopeful that we’ll inspire many more people to take up a bigger interest in space, as did I a couple years ago.