First commercial space station – ULA and Bigelow Aerospace announced agreement for partnership

After launching BEAM onboard of Dragon spacecraft Bigelow is convinced that their concept of inflating space station is well engineered - probably ULA shares this opinion because both companies announced about cooperation for future commercial space station.

On April 11, 2016, in Colorado Springs United Launch Alliance and Bigelow Aerospace Colorado announced about their will for developing cooperation to establish in 2020 first commercial space station - Bigelow B330.

B330 will have 330 cubic meters of volume (comparing to 916 cubic meters of International Space Station), 9.45 m of length and mass around 23 t. B330 is planned as inflatable construction manufactured in technology similar to BEAM expandable module launched recently during CRS-8 and previous experimental prototypes: Genesis I and Genesis II. Companies are considering using station for variety of purposes from research laboratory with micro gravitation conditions through orbital assembling facility to space tourism. Supplies will be delivered by CRS NASA contractors, crews will arrive on Boeing CST-100 spacecraft. According to official statement of ULA and quoted there Robert Bigelow, founder of Bigelow Aerospace:

“We are exploring options for the location of the initial B330 including discussions with NASA on the possibility of attaching it to the International Space Station (ISS)... In that configuration, the B330 will enlarge the station’s volume by 30% and function as a multipurpose testbed in support of NASA’s exploration goals as well as provide significant commercial opportunities. The working name for this module is XBASE or Expandable Bigelow Advanced Station Enhancement.”

ULA and Bigelow are also considering threating B330 as commercial expansion of ISS to provide additional space for research. With room for 6 person crew it will extend capacity of ISS for about 30%. More room and more crew members means more abilities for performing researches - it is important to use time which still remained to decommissioning of ISS as as best as possible. NASA could be interested in hiring B330 to avoid additional costs of developing own module but still keeping opportunity for additional laboratory space. After reaching the end of operational life of ISS, B330 could be detached and spend rest from its 20 years of predicted life as separate, stand-alone space station.

Bigelow B330 will be launched on atop of United Launch Alliance Atlas rocket. It will be Atlas V in 552 configuration. Rocket will be equipped with 5 m payload fairing, 5 boosters and Centaur upper stage with 2 engines. In this configuration Atlas V is able to lift up to 20 t to LEO - it was not unveiled how ULA will lift remaining 3 t of B330 to orbit. It could be explained by using new engines which were designed to replace used in Atlas RD-180. Created by Aerojet Rocketdyne AR1 engines with better parameters than RD-180 could solve problem along with design improvements focused on reducing mass of the B330 - it is planned to start installing AR1 in 2019, just year before first launch of B330 in 2020. At the moment both Companies are convinced that their project is future of space exploration and confirmed plans for further establishing similar station on Moon or Mars orbit.

It was not announced if B330 modules will be part of unveiled in 2005 CSS Skywalker (Commercial Space Station Skywalker). This project which start and exploitation were planned for 2015 was basically tourism oriented habitable station with limited capabilities for scientific research. Now it seems that Bigelow is more focused on renting laboratory with micro gravitation conditions then space tourism. The problem is that along with Bigelow, different space stations are planned. China and Russia will offer probably comparable solutions - question is if such there will be enough customers who would like to pay for microgravity conditions which could be also provided by returnable scientific satellites or solutions like New Shepard.

On picture above: mockup of the B330.