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Inflatable space module cleared for liftoff The U.S. government has given payload approval to Bigelow Aerospace, permitting the entrepreneurial firm to launch its inflatable space module technology.
Bigelow Aerospace / Bigelow Aerospace
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The U.S. government has given payload approval to Bigelow Aerospace, permitting the entrepreneurial firm to launch its inflatable space module technology.

Bigelow Aerospace of North Las Vegas has blueprinted a step-by-step program to explore the use of inflatable Earth-orbiting modules. Those modules would not only support made-in-microgravity product development, but serve as the technology foundation for eventual space tourist housing and the use of similar structures on the moon and Mars.

The Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of the Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation, or FAA-AST, has given Bigelow Aerospace payload approval for flying its Genesis inflatable module — one-third-scale hardware crafted to lead to a much larger space habitat dubbed the Nautilus.

Extensive review
The FAA-AST approval letter regarding the Bigelow Aerospace scale demonstration module, dated Nov. 17, comes after an extensive review of the concept, including its construction, materials used, shielding technology and the in-space inflation process to be utilized, as well as the deorbiting of the test module.

“Obtaining the FAA-AST payload approval for Genesis is a first of its kind,” explained Mike Gold, corporate counsel for Bigelow Aerospace in Washington. “This will go a long way to establishing a good precedent for the inflatables,” he told

“This is a first step — but an important first step along the road that Bigelow Aerospace is traveling,” Gold added. To obtain the “favorable payload determination” by the FAA-AST, a review process took place over roughly an eight-month period, he said.

Gold said that the approval letter is not “rocket -pecific” and carries no deadline date. The letter indicates, he said, that if a launch operator applies to the FAA for license to launch a vehicle carrying the Genesis payload, the favorable payload determination will be incorporated in the review of the license application.

Nascent space firms
“It’s one small step for the FAA-AST, one giant leap for Bigelow Aerospace,” Gold said. He saluted the FAA-AST for helping nascent space firms move forward and for taking a larger look at the role entrepreneurs and new technologies can play in space.

Bigelow Aerospace is headed by Robert Bigelow, owner of the Budget Suites of America hotel chain, among a roster of other business ventures.

The current plan is to launch the Genesis payload on the private booster, the Falcon 5, a derivative of the still-to-fly Falcon 1 being built by El Segundo, Calif.-based Space Exploration Technologies Corp. better-known as SpaceX.

The Genesis prototype hardware would be onboard the Falcon 5’s maiden flight, which is targeted for a November 2005 time frame.

Bigelow Aerospace also plans to loft a Genesis Pathfinder module in April 2006, using a silo-launched Dnepr booster under contract with ISC Kosmotras, a Russian and Ukrainian rocket-for-hire company.

Not just America’s Space Prize?
Earlier this month, Bigelow Aerospace took the wraps off the $50 million "America’s Space Prize". That contest, with a Jan. 10, 2010 deadline, is designed to stimulate the building of orbital, crew-carrying spacecraft that have the ability to dock with a Bigelow Aerospace inflatable space habitat.

“We’ve gotten lots of interest from a variety of sources,” Gold said. “It has run the spectrum from small entrepreneurial groups to interest from larger traditional aerospace companies.”

There have been some gripes from would-be contestants not based in the United States.

The rules for the competition state that the contestant must be domiciled and have its principal place of business in the United States.

There are reasons for those requirements: For one, if a spacecraft system is developed domestically in the United States, there would be no need to deal with International Traffic in Arms Regulations and export control issues that can be “quite difficult and quite problematic,” Gold explained.

However, Gold added, those prize rules should not be construed as some kind of blanket prohibition on international participation. “I would imagine that an international entity would be able to easily establish a subsidiary of some kind, that would meet those two requirements,” he said.

“America’s Space Prize in no way precludes international participation. That’s just not the case,” Gold said.