The success of Bigelow Aerospace's Genesis 1 module, which has been operating in orbit since July 12, has put the company well ahead in its plans for bigger and more capable modules that eventually will host visitors in orbit.
"From a technological standpoint, we are years ahead of where we thought we would be at this time...due to the success of Genesis 1," said Bigelow Aerospace Corporate Counsel, Mike Gold. "At this point, we feel we're ready to move ahead and tackle what will be the largest challenge to date for Bigelow Aerospace...to develop a habitat that will actually be capable of supporting a crew."
At present, Bigelow Aerospace is readying the next space module mission and gearing up company plans to orbit a human-rated habitat--the Sundancer--at the firm's ground control central in Las Vegas, Nevada.
The Genesis 1 is nearly 15-foot (4.4 meters) long. The module filled itself out to over 8 feet (2.54 meters) in diameter from its tightly-packed launch configuration of some 5 feet (1.6 meters) across. In its pressurized fully-expanded status, the structure yields 11.5 cubic meters of usable volume. The module is energized by eight solar arrays--a set of four on each end of the craft.
Now being groomed for flight is Genesis 2. Its launch campaign will begin in January, Gold told SPACE.com, with liftoff of the hardware slated for the first quarter of next year. Barring launch delays, Genesis 2's flight could come on the early end of that quarter, he added.
Like its predecessor, Genesis 2 will plow into orbit via a Dnepr booster under contract with ISC Kosmotras, the Russian and Ukrainian rocket-for-hire company. The Dnepr is a converted Cold War SS-18 intercontinental ballistic missile.
New and different payloads
Externally, Genesis 2 looks very similar to the company's earlier orbital module. However, the newer craft will carry a variety of new and different payloads and experiments, along with enhanced systems, Gold advised.
Onboard the next-to-be-launched expandable module, Gold said that additional cameras are to relay images down to several ground locales--an expansion of Bigelow's mission control network beyond the Las Vegas complex.
"We're first adding ground sites domestically...with possible international sites after that. The more stations we have, the more data and value we obtain from our missions," Gold said.
Bigelow Aerospace also introduced with the Genesis 2 mission a "Fly Your Stuff" program. Orders are no longer being accepted so engineers can ready Genesis 2 for takeoff.
The Fly Your Stuff participation program enables customers to send individual items into Earth orbit onboard the Genesis 2 module. Once the craft is in space, the objects inside the module are to be photographed by onboard cameras for down-link to Earth--and a way to create a revenue stream too.
Bigelow Aerospace leader, Robert Bigelow, unveiled more details about his entrepreneurial habitat plans in September, spotlighting a new module project that is dubbed Sundancer.
That craft would offer 180 cubic meters of habitable space, fully-equipped with life support systems, attitude control, on-orbit maneuverability, as well as reboost and de-orbit capability. This larger module--sporting a trio of windows--could support a three-person crew and be on-orbit in a late 2009-2010 time frame, Bigelow reported.
Gold said that work is already underway in designing Sundancer. Genesis 2, in fact, will carry technology that could be implemented in the Sundancer module. Furthermore, Sundancer is itself a progressive step toward the BA-330 orbital habitat. The "330" signifies the cubic meters of that module's internal volume.
Lessons learned from the performance of both Genesis 2 and Sundancer is driving the design and schedule of future projects, such as the BA-330, Gold said.
Human-rated Atlas V rockets
Because Sundancer is larger, heavier and more complex than Genesis-class modules, it most likely is beyond the capabilities of a Dnepr booster.
A medium launch vehicle would be required--say a Falcon 9 launcher from SpaceX, a Ukrainian/Russian Zenit, or an Atlas booster, Gold said. But given a Sundancer bopping around the globe, or the larger BA-330, how to get people up to Bigelow-supplied live-in modules is another matter.
In September, Bigelow Aerospace announced a partnership with Lockheed Martin to explore the capability of launching passengers to Bigelow-built commercial space complexes on human-rated Atlas V rockets.
According to George Sowers, Atlas Business Development and Advanced Programs Director, Lockheed Martin is working with Bigelow Aerospace "to evaluate the market of space tourism and research to determine if Atlas could be a part of this potential new market area."
The Atlas has a celebrated past history. The booster hurled America's first astronauts into orbit in the 1960s.
A potential passenger capsule for Bigelow would likely be launched aboard the Atlas V 401 configuration. Demonstrating human-qualified system upgrades could be done by pre-testing those upgrades on commercial or government missions prior to flying the first passengers.
"As a merchant supplier of launch services, Lockheed Martin is working with Bigelow to explore the feasibility of using the Atlas V system to launch passengers to a Bigelow-built space habitat," said Julie Andrews, spokeswoman for Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company. "The feasibility study will address the technical aspects of human-qualifying the Atlas as well as business considerations," she told SPACE.com.
The two space companies have agreed to explore the technical requirements for launch services that haul commercial crew and cargo to expandable orbital space complexes.
Also, Bigelow and Lockheed Martin are probing the production and supply of Atlas rockets, as well as delving into flight safety and performance of the booster. Potential business models and business plans are on the table too.
Following this initial work, each company will assess the feasibility of going forward with a program to develop a human-qualified Atlas to match the expected demand.
Fill the talent pool
Space operations and programs at Bigelow Aerospace are on the upswing--so much so that the company is increasing its talent pool, on the lookout for expert engineers, technicians, managers as well as astronauts, Gold pointed out.
Projects underway at Bigelow Aerospace--along with activities at other private organizations like SpaceX and Scaled Composites, for example--should help offset, somewhat, worries about the graying of the aerospace workforce.
"It gives people solid, hands-on experience. The lack of that has been part of the problem in the past," Gold said. "We have ambitious plans and we're looking for good people. We like to think that this is the biggest adventure in space."
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