Bigelow Aerospace officials said Feb. 1 they are making progress in their negotiations with United Launch Alliance for six initial launches for their planned commercial space station, starting around 2011.
Subsequently the company hopes to conduct as many as a dozen launches per year as the new facility becomes fully operational.
Bigelow Aerospace and Denver-based United Launch Alliance (ULA) have been working together for over a year studying what it would take to human-rate the Atlas 5 rocket. Industry sources said Bigelow Aerospace is ready to place an order that includes six launches starting in 2011 to begin assembly and early operation of the new station.
"Those [first] six launches will be comprised of two missions to deploy hardware such as Sundancer itself and our node/bus combination and four missions to dedicated to transporting crew and cargo," Robert Bigelow, president and founder of Bigelow Aerospace said in a written statement.
"Subsequently our launch rate will double, and we will require a dozen launches, all for crew and cargo transportation missions over the next 12-month period. Our third year of active operations will again require another dozen crew and cargo mission launches and, in our fourth year of operations, we anticipate needing 18 such launches."
The company official said the negotiations with Lockheed apply only to the provision of a man-rated launch vehicle and that the type and manufacturer of the crew transport capsule Bigelow will need has yet to be decided.
"I don't think anyone could deny the excellent record and pedigree of the Atlas 5-401 as a quality choice to be upgraded to carry human passengers," Bigelow said.
ULA spokeswoman Julie Andrews also confirmed Feb. 1 that negotiations were under way.
"As a merchant supplier of launch services, United Launch Alliance is very proud that our Atlas 5 is being considered for such a commercial space venture," Andrews told Space News. "We will work closely with Lockheed Martin Commercial Launch Services in implementing the detailed design and development activities to provide a human-rated Atlas 5 launch vehicle to be ready to support Bigelow's plan."
While ULA would supply the rockets, the deal is being worked through Lockheed Martin Commercial Launch Services, also of Denver.
In a written statement, David Markham, president of Lockheed Martin Commercial Launch Services, said: "The Atlas 5 is ideal to provide commercial crew and cargo transportation for this pioneering commercial space venture.
Bigelow Aerospace possesses an unparalleled vision and entrepreneurial perspective that is crucial to truly opening the commercial space market to a larger segment of the population. Targeting the Atlas 5 for use demonstrates a commitment to flight-proven domestic launch services to ensure success."
Andrews said ULA is still evaluating what it would need to do on the production side to support the 12 launches per year Bigelow says he wants.
"We will study how to increase the production rate for the eventual rates that Bigelow is talking about," she said.
On the operations side of the equation, Andrews said the Atlas 5 launch complex at Cape Canaveral Air Station in Florida is sized to handle the number of launches Bigelow is talking about.
"We will be keeping all of our government customers informed as we go forward, but Launch Complex 41 was designed to launch more than they currently are," Andrews said, noting that Lockheed Martin conducted 11 Atlas 1 and 2 launches from Florida in 1995.
Bigelow Aerospace currently has two subscale expandable space modules in orbit. The privately-financed Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 modules were launched on July 12, 2006 and June 28, 2007, respectively, on Dnepr boosters from the ISC Kosmotras Yasny Cosmodrome, located in the Orenburg region of Russia.
Last year Bigelow cited the combination of rising Russian launch prices and the success of Genesis 1 and 2 in announcing his plans to skip the launch of additional subscale demonstrators and accelerate the deployment of an expandable space station initially capable of accommodating six people and eventually as many as 15.
His advertised price for a four-week stay: just under $15 million.
Bigelow did not disclose what type of spacecraft the company intends to put atop the Atlas 5 to carry passengers.