Spaceflight Companies Team Up for Private Space Station Flights

Dragon Spacecraft After First Successful Orbital Flight.
Photo of actual Dragon spacecraft after its first successful orbital flight. (Image credit: SpaceX/Mike Altenhofen)

Two private aerospace firms are teaming up to sell manned flights to private space stations orbiting Earth.

The plan, which was announced Thursday (May 10), calls for customers to launch aboard the private company SpaceX's Dragon capsule and Falcon 9 rocket to an orbiting habitat built by the Las Vegas-based Bigelow Aerospace. The two companies hope to attract interest from a variety of clients around the world.

"Together we will provide unique opportunities to entities — whether nations or corporations — wishing to have crewed access to the space environment for extended periods," SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell said in a statement. "I’m looking forward to working with Bigelow Aerospace and engaging with international customers."

The Dragon capsule is designed to carry up to seven passengers to destinations in low-Earth orbit and beyond. The Hawthorne, Calif.-based SpaceX hopes NASA will select the Dragon/Falcon 9 system to transport its astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS). [Photos: Private Space Stations of the Future]

NASA's Commercial Crew Development program gave SpaceX $75 million last year to help Dragon's progress along, and the company says it may be ready to begin crew-carrying operations within three years or so.

SpaceX already holds a $1.6 billion NASA contract to make 12 cargo flights to the ISS using an unmanned version of Dragon. The company is due to launch the capsule on a historic demonstration mission on May 19, during which Dragon will try to become the first private vehicle ever to berth with the huge orbiting complex.

This artist's illustration depicts a Boeing CST-100 spacecraft approaching a private inflatable space station complex designed by Bigelow Aerospace. (Image credit: Boeing)

Bigelow builds large, expandable space habitats. The company plans to link up at least two of its BA 330 modules — each of which provides about 11,650 cubic feet (330 cubic meters) of usable volume — to create private space stations.

Bigelow has a separate partnership with Boeing, which plans to use its CST-100 capsule to carry astronauts to Bigelow space stations. Boeing is also hoping NASA selects the CST-100 to ferry crews to and from the ISS.

SpaceX and Bigelow will kick off the marketing effort for their new partnership in Asia after Dragon's scheduled May 19 launch. Representatives of the two companies plan to meet then with Japanese officials, SpaceX officials said.

"We’re very excited to be working with our colleagues at SpaceX to present the unique services that our two companies can offer to international clientele," said Bigelow founder and president Robert Bigelow. "We’re eager to join them overseas to discuss the substantial benefits that BA 330 leasing can offer in combination with SpaceX transportation capabilities."

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