NASA’s interest in inflatable modules, meanwhile, has not escaped the notice of Bigelow Aerospace, a Las Vegas-based company that has successfully built and launched two prototypes and is currently working on larger modules. (In an ironic twist, Bigelow licensed the inflatable technology used in its modules from NASA, which had been developing a concept called TransHab that was canceled a decade ago.)
Mike Gold, director of Washington operations for Bigelow, said at ISDC that the company has been in discussions with NASA on a concept for the Bigelow Aerospace Module, a small inflatable module that could be attached to the ISS. Such a module, he said, would likely be comparable to the closet-sized Genesis prototypes the company previously launched. Gold has reservations, however, about NASA’s apparent desire for a “full-scale” inflatable module. “I’m not sure whether you could safely put a full-scale inflatable on the ISS,” said Gold, noting that adding even a small module to the station requires addressing issues such as structural fatigue and outgassing of module materials.
Bigelow also has an interest in an even bigger NASA initiative that involves some NewSpace companies: plans to spend $6 billion over the next five years to develop commercial systems that can transport astronauts to and from low Earth orbit. One company, SpaceX, is already developing the launch vehicle and spacecraft needed to carry that out; the rocket, the Falcon 9, is slated for its first launch from Cape Canaveral as early as this Friday. Such vehicles, besides meeting NASA’s needs for access to the ISS, could serve other customers such as Bigelow.
Some experts, however, doubt that NewSpace companies have the technical skill to safely carry out commercial crew missions. Skeptics include Scott Pace, a former NASA official who currently directs the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University. “Some think we’re ready to go towards human spaceflight on a commercial vehicle, and I’m not,” he said in a discussion about NASA’s new direction at ISDC.
Gold disagrees, arguing that commercial companies are ready to step up, and dismissing claims that commercial vehicles would be less safe than government-operated ones. “We care more about safety” than a government agency like NASA, said Gold, noting that a major accident could doom a commercial provider, but it wouldn’t necessarily ruin NASA. Safety concerns will undoubtedly be a central focus as NASA’s current plans go forward, and as the fates of NASA and NewSpace become increasingly intertwined.