After launching two prototype space stations into orbit, space entrepreneur and pioneer Robert Bigelow is now setting his sights a bit higher. His latest vision: A quick-deploy moon base capable of housing up to 18 astronauts in inflatable modules on the lunar surface.
The base itself would be fabricated in space, with consideration being given to crewmembers piloting the entire base directly onto the moon's surface.
"I see a huge sea change in using expandable systems," Bigelow told SPACE.com in an exclusive interview. "I feel this architecture is fundamentally safer, less expensive, and can save an awful lot of time." [Future moon base photos.]
Bigelow founded Bigelow Aerospace in 1999, headquartered in Las Vegas, Nevada, drawing upon his construction, real estate, and hotel know-how to pioneer the use of expandable space structures. To date he has dedicated over $180 million to his visionary quest.
Two prototype space modules built by Bigelow Aerospace are now circuiting the Earth. Lofted in July 2006 and in June 2007, respectively, the company's Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 expandable modules served as forerunners to ever-larger and human-rated space structures.
Bigelow's moon visions come at a time when NASA is overhauling its plans for human spaceflight and planning to depend more on commercial space companies for future hardware and spacecraft.
On Thursday, U.S. President Barack Obama is expected to announce the revival of NASA's cancelled Orion spacecraft to serve as a crew escape ship for the International Space Station, as well as guidelines for a heavy-lift rocket capable of launching heavy payloads into space.
Beyond low Earth orbit
"We want to go to the moon . . . and the expandable habitats are a good example of an enabling technology that will be leveraged to bring this vision to fruition," said Michael Gold, Director of Washington, D.C. Operations & Business Growth for Bigelow Aerospace, LLC, based in Chevy Chase, Md. "Our goal has always been beyond low Earth orbit."
Gold said that Bigelow Aerospace has been aggressively establishing an international consortium of what the group terms as "sovereign clients" along with hammering out the financial and legal structure, he said, for such partnerships to blossom, first in low Earth orbit and then beyond.
"We need to make low-Earth orbit work first before we go beyond . . . but I believe we will," Gold told SPACE.com. "Once we've established a robust infrastructure in Earth orbit, created the economies of scale necessary to produce facilities in low Earth orbit . . . at that point, we've really enabled ourselves to look at a variety of options."
Bigelow Aerospace has taken a hard look at how their habitats could function on the lunar surface, Gold said. "We believe our expandable habitat technology will be a critical piece of building a presence on the moon," he added.
The testing of expandable habitats in Earth orbit is key, Bigelow said. "The concept has always been to create generic envelopes . . . for use as habitats, depots, storage warehouse facilities and giant laboratories too," he added.
There is "on-going discussion" about use of a Bigelow Aerospace-supplied module attached to the International Space Station, Bigelow said.
Furthermore, Bigelow Aerospace is partnered with Boeing for Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) a commercially managed system that could be used to transport astronauts to and from the International Space Station, Bigelow Aerospace's Orbital Space Complex, and other potential destinations in low Earth orbit.
But Bigelow and his team are sketching out architectures to also put their structures in the Lagrangian Point L1 partway between the moon and the Earth and also used as depots for outbound expeditions to Mars.
"We think it's all very doable," Bigelow said.
The company is pressing forward on a three-person Sundancer module and the larger BA-330, a unit that offers 330 cubic meters of leasable internal volume for a crew of six.
But space is big, and so too are Bigelow's ideas.
One size doesn't fit all
Given a NASA go-ahead to work on a super heavy lifter, much larger habitats are on the drawing boards, Bigelow said, "and the volumes that we can launch are absolutely gigantic."
Bigelow Aerospace envisions expandable habitats offering 2,100 cubic meters of volume nearly twice the capacity available on the International Space Station while another plan sketches out use of a super-jumbo structure providing 3,240 cubic meters of volume.
For the moon base, three BA 330s, along with topped off propulsion tanks and power units, could be joined together and then migrated from either L1 or lunar orbit and flown to a pre-selected lunar spot.
"The vessels are configured to be independent of each other, to be self-sustaining," Bigelow said. "In theory, you might have 12 people occupying the lunar station . . . which could actually handle 18 people. But I'm a huge fan of margins. The larger the margin the better I like it."
The expandable systems are extremely tough, able to sit down on any kind of surface, Bigelow explained. "We would reinforce everything, the intersections where the spacecrafts come together, so they would be able to accommodate an uneven surface."
Nearby the landed base, a solar array field would be deployed.
Bigelow said that he's spent a good deal of his life in construction, putting together things for some 40 years.
"And anybody that's done that understands that a lot of things can go wrong. And they go wrong all the time. So you want to absolutely minimize logistics," Bigelow advised. It's crucial that integrating activity be minimized, he said, be it on the lunar or Martian surface.
"All this is step by step taking us on the way to Mars. The moon is a great practice ground," Bigelow concluded. "The moon is a very valuable asset for a lot of reasons."
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Leonard David has been reporting on the space industry for more than five decades. He is past editor-in-chief of the National Space Society's Ad Astra and Space World magazines and has written for SPACE.com since 1999.