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Bouncing Off Recent Success, Bigelow Sets Sights On Moon For Inflatable Habitat

Animation of Bigelow Aerospace's lunar depot in orbit. Photo: Bigelow Aerospace / YouTube
Animation of Bigelow Aerospace's lunar depot in orbit. Photo: Bigelow Aerospace / YouTube

Private company Bigelow Aerospace announced plans to send and inflatable space station to the moon.

The Las Vegas-based company develops space habitats that can be packed flat, then inflated once they get into orbit. A prototype has been connected to the International Space Station since last year.

Bigelow is bouncing off the success of that habitat, called BEAM (Bigelow Expandable Activity Module), with a mission to send a new habitat about a third the size of the International Space Station. The so-called depot will orbit the moon about 40 miles above the surface, allowing easy access to the ground by landers docked on the depot.

Founder Robert Bigelow financed the development of the hardware with his own money, but wants NASA to chip in for the mission at the price of $2.3 billion.

"That’s not bad at all in the grand scheme of things," said Bigelow. "That can be spread over several years.”

NASA hasn't discussed the offer with Bigelow yet, but he says after speaking with officials in the agency, he's optimistic they can work together.

The space agency has its own plans for a moon-based station called the Deep Space Gateway, although at this point it's just an idea. NASA signed a joint resolution with the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, to continue researching the idea of a space station at the moon that can act as a springboard to deep space destinations like Mars.

The Trump administration is pivoting to the moon, unlike the Obama administration that had its sights set on sending humans to an asteroid as a dress rehearsal for Mars missions. Vice President Pence shared the administration's vision for lunar exploration at a National Space Council meeting in Washington. Many of the private companies participating in the meeting expressed the desire and ability to help NASA with lunar missions.

Bigelow says his inflatable mission architecture can get humans to the moon fast and cheap, and will drum up public support for human exploration missions.

“To get back to the moon, and do things meaningful on the surface of the moon starting with the depot, is a real serious line in the sand," he said. "This is what we’re going to cross, this is what we’re going to do, and we’re not going to wait another 45 years.”

Bigelow Aerospace's lunar mission requires multiple launches from private company United Launch Alliance, likely from Cape Canaveral, on the company's next generation Vulcan rocket. The $2.3 billion price tag for the mission will help speed up ULA's development of ACES, a space craft that will refuel the moon depot while in orbit ahead of a trip to the moon.

Brendan covers space news for WMFE, everything from rocket launches to the latest scientific discoveries in our universe. He hosts WMFE's weekly radio show and podcast "Are We There Yet?" which explores human space exploration. Brendan is a native Floridian, born and raised in Broward County. He moved to Central Florida in 2005 to attend the University of Central Florida. He began working at WMFE as a college intern where he discovered his love for public radio.