Some months ago, Bigelow Aerospace released the last of two reports that detailed how NASA could partner with commercial enterprises to explore beyond low Earth orbit, including returning to the moon. A February 7, 2014 story in NASASpaceFlight details some of the hardware that Bigelow could provide for such an effort.
Bigelow is offering versions of the BA 330 inflatable space station, capable of sustaining up to six astronauts, to a potential NASA/commercial partnership. A version of the space station could be deployed in low Earth orbit, with institutions and countries renting space on it for about $50 million for 60 days, including a trip to and from the facility on a commercial space craft like the SpaceX Dragon or the Sierra Nevada Dreamchaser.
There are other versions of the inflatable space station that could be deployed beyond low Earth orbit, in lunar orbit, at one of the Earth/Moon Lagrange points, and even on the lunar surface. Bigelow is also envisioning a space tug that could move these versions of the BA 330 from LEO to any destination NASA or any other customer desires. Commercial space craft, likely launched by SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, would access these beyond LEO inflatable space stations.
Bigelow also has an idea for an even bigger inflatable space station, called Olympus, which could accommodate between 24 and 30 astronauts. Another version would serve as a kind of space garage, where space craft, landers, and satellites would be serviced. The Olympus, by the way, would be deployed by NASA’s super heavy lift Space Launch System.
There are some prerequisites to even the first low Earth orbit commercial space station flying. First, commercial space craft have to begin operation and at a competitive cost. Then someone, probably NASA, would have to pay to have these inflatable space stations deployed. The first development is on track. As for the second, stay tuned.