May 10, 2012 at 8:17 PM ET
SpaceX and Bigelow Aerospace plan to meet with officials in Japan soon after this month's scheduled launch of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule, to kick off an international marketing effort for private-sector space stations.
The plan, laid out today in a jointly issued news release, calls for clients to go into orbit inside the Dragon and link up with Bigelow's BA 330 inflatable space habitat.
"Together we will provide unique opportunities to entities — whether nations or corporations — wishing to have crewed access to the space environment for extended periods," said SpaceX's president, Gwynne Shotwell. "I'm looking forward to working with Bigelow Aerospace and engaging with international customers."
Robert Bigelow, the billionaire founder and president of Nevada-based Bigelow Aerospace, said he was eager to join up with California-based SpaceX and tell international clients about "the substantial benefits that BA 330 leasing can offer in combination with SpaceX transportation capabilities."
SpaceX is planning to launch an unmanned Dragon cargo capsule into orbit as early as May 19 for a potential test linkup with the International Space Station, and is already working with NASA to modify the Dragon for carrying astronauts as well. Just this week, NASA announced that SpaceX reached a milestone in that development effort by showing that seven astronauts could maneuver effectively inside the Dragon space taxi, even under emergency scenarios.
Bigelow's BA 330 space module would be designed to provide 330 cubic meters of usable volume, which is about the size of a two-bedroom apartment. The BA 330 could accommodate up to six astronauts, depending on how cozy they plan to get. Two or more BA 330 modules could be connected together in orbit for lease by national space agencies, companies or universities, according to Bigelow Aerospace.
Bigelow made his fortune in the hotel industry, which led some to suppose that he was getting into the space-hotel business — but the first users are likely to be researchers or governments aiming to pursue their own space programs on a leased orbital platform. The company has launched two prototype inflatable modules on Russian rockets — Genesis 1 in 2006 and Genesis 2 in 2007 — and both of those unmanned spacecraft are still in orbit.
Mike Gold, who serves as Bigelow Aerospace's director of Washington operations and business growth, told me that the company was ready to move forward with the BA 330 as well as the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM, an upscale version of the Genesis module that could be attached to the International Space Station. Future progress on both those projects is dependent on decisions made by NASA, however. NASA has not yet made a commitment to using the BEAM, and it has not yet announced how it will proceed with the next phase of its effort to support the development of commercial space taxis such as SpaceX's Dragon.
"We'll be ready to proceed when commercial crew is," Gold told me.
In addition to its marketing arrangement with SpaceX, Bigelow has partnered with the Boeing Co. on a project to create a space taxi called the CST-100 to ferry NASA astronauts. That scenario could see a successor to the CST-100 launched toward a Bigelow-built space station atop United Launch Alliance's Atlas 5 rocket.
Gold said the commercial crew vehicle development program was the "long pole in the tent" for Bigelow Aerospace's plans. Even if Bigelow Aerospace built its BA 330, it would have to rely upon an affordable, reliable, safe system for orbital transport — and that system probably would have to be developed and tested with NASA's help.
Four companies, including Boeing and SpaceX as well as Blue Origin and Sierra Nevada Corp., have been receiving hundreds of millions of dollars in funding from NASA, but it's not yet clear how much money Congress will approve for the next phase of the program. If the funding matches NASA's projected levels, space agency officials have said commercial space taxis could be flying astronauts by 2017. "We hope it could be even earlier," Gold said.
However, it's highly questionable whether NASA will get as much money for commercial crew development as it has requested. The request for fiscal year 2013 was almost $830 million, but a Senate subcommittee cut that figure to $525 million. Today the House passed a bill specifying an even lower funding level, $500 million. The White House has threatened a presidential veto of that bill, in part because of its concerns about the cutback in commercial crew support.
More about SpaceX and Bigelow:
Alan Boyle is msnbc.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.