Are We about to See Commercial Development of the Moon? Bigelow Aerospace Says ‘Yes’
If some of the wealthiest and most powerful individuals on the planet have their way, human beings will soon—very soon, in fact—be returning to the Moon. Elon Musk, Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos are all familiar names to most of the public, and if they are successful in their initiatives we may have to add “space entrepreneur” to their impressive list of business achievements.
But there’s another accomplished entrepreneur who’s gotten in on the act. So far, he’s the one who’s managed to successfully negotiate a deal with NASA to make amazing things happen.
This man’s name is Robert Bigelow. He is the president of Bigelow Aerospace and its offshoot company Bigelow Space Operations. Bigelow’s previous claim to fame was his intense involvement in UFO research, first through a private initiative called the National Institute of Discovery Science (NIDS) and later in the employ of the U.S. Department of Defense.
Big-name players like Musk and Bezos have been talking about launching their own private space programs that could eventually lead to Moon travel or exploration. But it was the longtime UFO and paranormal enthusiast Bigelow who reached an agreement with NASA that put his company in the driver’s seat with respect to the commercialization of space.
This happened in 2013, when NASA and Bigelow Aerospace jointly announced they had reached an agreement to form a public-private partnership which could pave the way for the exploration and commercial development of the Moon, Mars and outer space itself.
“As part of our broader commercial space strategy, NASA signed a Space Act Agreement with Bigelow Aerospace to foster ideas about how the private sector can contribute to future human missions,” said David Weaver, NASA’s Associate Adminstrator for the Office of Communications at that time. “This will provide important information on possible ways to expand our exploration capabilities in partnership with the private sector. “
The partnership, which is designed to extend human civilization throughout the solar system, granted Bigelow Aerospace Company status as a ‘general contractor’ responsible for commercial projects in space. Bigelow Aerospace’s subsidiary Bigelow Space Operations will be the central link between NASA and dozens of private companies that want to play a role in the creation of a new space economy, including proposals for investments in product research and development, manufacturing, medical research and agricultural products.
With a commercialized space program, the sky would no longer be the limit.
The association between NASA and Bigelow Aerospace is clearly beneficial to both sides. In general, during this collaboration NASA will take a hands-off approach, offering consultation and advice to private contractors on an as-needed basis. Meanwhile, private companies like Bigelow would pay for the research, development and engineering of future spacecraft, space stations and bases, which NASA could then lease at a fraction of the cost of building its own craft and facilities.
While the pact with Bigelow was designed to open doors for a multitude of private contractors, at least in the early stages it is Bigelow Aerospace itself that has reaped the benefits.
Following the completion of the pact, NASA’s agreed to deploy an inflatable module produced by Bigelow on the International Space Station. This inflatable space bubble is called BEAM (Bigelow Expandable Activity Module), and it was carried into space on a SpaceX rocket in 2016 and later inflated to full size after docking with the ISS. The module was built tough and strong to withstand the vacuum of space and contact with space debris, and its purpose was to increase the size of the habitable area available for space station personnel by 16 cubic metres.
The BEAM project has proven enormously successful, and at least for now Bigelow Aerospace is concentrating on the manufacture of more inflatable and expandable modules suitable for all off-planet environments. Its next project is to send a pair of modules (the BA 330) into space and connect them to each other to create an entirely new, privately-owned space station, which Robert Bigelow plans to call Space Station Alpha.
Bigelow hopes to initiate the launch and docking of his two BA 330 modules by 2021. He is currently in the process of recruiting investors and/or customers who could either help finance this venture or develop projects that might be carried out within the space station’s confines.
The Bigelow Space Operations sales pitch to corporations, government agencies and educational institutions promises to provide “an orbit space for science and research at a much lower price than [on] the ISS.” Bigelow has expressed its interest in “helping foreign countries to establish their human space programs” and in expanding into “larger markets that do not fall into the science baskets.” The latter might appeal to tourism companies interested in using the facilities as a hotel or retreat for well-heeled customers that can afford an off-world trip.
Eventually, Bigelow Aerospace plans to construct and inflate an additional space station with 2.4 times the pressured air space as the ISS. In this instance, Bigelow may have a ready-made customer in NASA, which plans to build a new station called Lunar Orbital Platform—Gateway sometime within the next decade. This space station would remain in orbit around the Moon, and would act as a training facility and living quarters for astronauts who would be close enough to travel back and forth to the Moon on various missions.
As of now, no agreement has been reached to contract Bigelow Space Operations to handle construction of this facility. But given the ongoing working relationship that Bigelow and NASA have already created, it seems like this could be a match made in heaven.
Ultimately, for Robert Bigelow the Moon is the ultimate goal.
“The brass ring for us is having a lunar base,” Bigelow has said. “That is an appetite and a desire that we’ve had for a long, long time.”
Should Moonbase Bigelow become a reality, it would employ the same type of inflatable habitats the company has developed for use with Earth-orbiting facilities. These relatively lightweight living and working quarters could be carried first to NASA’s planned Lunar Orbital Platform, and then down to the Moon’s surface from there.
Exploring the Moon for Fun and Profit
The Trump Administration has instructed NASA to shift its focus to putting astronauts back on the Moon by the mid-2020s. It hasn’t allocated new funds to make this happen, but has instead instructed NASA to seek relationships with commercial space companies in order to acquire the financing, equipment and technological expertise necessary to achieve this goal.
Getting in on the ground floor back in 2013 may give Bigelow Aerospace and Robert Bigelow an edge over bigger names like Musk, Branson, and Bezos, none of whom are political supporters of Trump (Bezos in particular is a staunch political enemy). But in space development as much as in politics nothing is guaranteed, and if Trump is defeated in the 2020 election a new administration will be in charge of shaping the U.S. space program’s future. Bigelow Aerospace could have its work cut out for them in the years ahead, if it wants to maintain its advantage and avoid being eaten by the other sharks.
Regardless of how things play out for Bigelow, Musk, Bezos, NASA, the Chinese space agency and others interested in getting involved, a sudden and dramatic expansion in solar system exploration and settlement is on the horizon. The commercial development of space is an inevitability, with or without the cooperation of NASA.
Soon, we’ll see men and women on the Moon who’re receiving paychecks from a variety of sources for a multitude of reasons. There’s money to be made in space, and entrepreneurs are lining up around the block to get in on the ground floor.
By Nathan Falde