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An artist’s conception of Bigelow Aerospace’s
Sundancer modules. Credit: Bigelow Aerospace

One of the major aspects of the debate about President Obama’s new proposal for NASA to turn to commercial providers for launching astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) is whether there would be additional markets for such companies. Today at the International Space Development Conference in Chicago one potential customer stepped forward and made it clear that not only are they interested in commercial launchers, but that their business plan depended on it.

Las Vegas-based Bigelow Aerospace is developing a series of “inflatable” modules, so named because they expand into larger volumes once in orbit. Bigelow launched two demonstration modules, Genesis I and II, in 2006 and 2007, and the company is actively developing Sundancer, which will have a volume of 180 cubic meters and be able to support a three-person crew. However, the company will hold off on launching Sundancer until there’s a commercial crew capability Bigelow can use.

“The long pole in the tent for our operations is that while we could have Sundancer ready very quickly, we don’t have a way to get people back and forth,” said Michael Gold, Director of Washington DC Operations for Bigelow Aerospace, during a speech at ISDC. The company’s decade-long development effort, which Gold said cost $180 million, “will be for naught if we don’t have affordable, reliable transportation.”

Bigelow has often been portrayed as a provider of space hotels, perhaps because of the background of founder Robert Bigelow, who developed the Budget Suites of America chain of hotels. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” Gold said. Instead, Bigelow is looking at microgravity research and so-called “sovereign clients”, countries without their own human spaceflight capabilities who may be interested in leasing a Bigelow module for their own projects.

How big of a customer could Bigelow be for commercial crew? Gold didn’t go into specifics, but a commercial launch forecast published earlier this month by the FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation noted that Bigelow’s long-term plans, if fully realized, could result “in excess of 150 launches” through 2020 for crews as well as the construction and maintenance of its planned habitats.

Gold dismissed one frequent argument against commercial crew, that such flights would be less safe than government-run missions. “There’s this misperception that commercial doesn’t care about safety. We care more about safety,” he said. While a government agency like NASA can survive an accident, he argued, a commercial venture would be facing hundreds of millions of dollars of losses and perhaps even its bankruptcy. “We’re more incentivized to be safe than a government agency because we have a lot riding on it.”

Commercial crew, Gold concluded, can benefit not just Bigelow Aerospace and the rest of the commercial space sector but NASA as well. “We see the Obama space policy as rescuing human spaceflight, allowing the private sector to take over low Earth orbit and allow NASA to go push the envelope, and do what NASA does best.”

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Tagged: Business, NASA, commercial space, launch vehicles, Bigelow Aerospace, ISDC 2010

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