Bigelow Aerospace Fast-Tracks Manned Spacecraft
This layout released by the Las Vegas, Nevada-based Bigelow Aerospace shows the size relations between the firm's various planned inflatable spacecraft. At top is Genesis 2, a near-identical follow on to the Genesis 1 module, set to fly in late June 2007.
Credit: Bigelow Aerospace.

Following the successful launch and deployment of two inflatable space modules, on Monday the owner and founder of Bigelow Aerospace announced plans to move ahead with the launch of its first human habitable spacecraft, the Sundancer.

The decision to fast-track Sundancer was made in part to rising launch costs as well as the ability to test some systems on the ground, company CEO Robert Bigelow said in a press statement.

"As anyone associated with the aerospace industry is aware, global launch costs have been rising rapidly over the course of the past few years," Bigelow is quoted as saying. "These price hikes have been most acute in Russia due to a number of factors including inflation, previous artificially low launch costs and the falling value of the U.S. dollar."

The announcement follows the success earlier this year of the launch of Genesis 2, the second inflatable module launched by Bigelow Aerospace as a prototype for future commercial space stations in Earth orbit. The U.S. firm launched its first spacecraft, Genesis 1, in July 2006, which remains operational today.

Bigelow Aerospace had planned to take a stepping-stone approach to the development of its space modules. Next in line after Genesis 2 was to be the larger Galaxy module scheduled to launch in the latter part of 2008.

But the "dramatic rise in launch costs has forced us to rethink our strategy with Galaxy," Bigelow said. "Due to the fact that a high percentage of the systems Galaxy was meant to test can be effectively validated on a terrestrial basis, the technical value of launching the spacecraft – particularly after the successful launch of both Genesis 1 and 2 – is somewhat marginal."

The Sundancer module will provide 180 cubic meters of habitable space and will come fully equipped with life-support systems, attitude control and on-orbit maneuverability, as well as reboost and deorbit capability. This larger module – sporting a trio of windows – could support a three-person crew and be on orbit in the second half of 2010, Bigelow told Space News in March of this year.

"We still intend to construct and test the Galaxy spacecraft and/or various parts of it in order to gain familiarity and experience with critical subsystems," Bigelow said in the release. "However, by eliminating the launch of Galaxy, we believe that [Bigelow Aerospace] can move more expeditiously to our next step by focusing exclusively on the challenging and exciting task presented by the Sundancer program."

"With this decision made, the future of entrepreneurial, private sector-driven space habitats and complexes could be arriving much earlier than any of us had previously anticipated," Bigelow said.