Bigelow Aerospace founder Robert Bigelow believes existing technology, NASA interest, and business opportunities are ready now for a return to the moon — and his company is ready to provide a space station there.
In an exclusive interview with FloridaPolitics.com Wednesday, the Las Vegas-based billionaire space entrepreneur made the argument that there already exists the technology, the opportunities for scientific research, a clear business case, and at least some NASA interest, for a return to the moon.
And he said his company has ongoing conversations with NASA and key rocket companies to make that happen quickly — by 2020.
Whether or not NASA wants to go back, there are private companies eager to mine the moon.
Bigelow’s company is eager to put a space station depot in lunar orbit, from which such activities and others can be initiated, as well as support onboard research.
“We do not have the technologies, and there is zero business case for Mars. We do have a business case for the moon. And that’s why the moon absolutely makes the best sense,” Bigelow said. “And we can do the lunar activities far sooner than we can with Mars, which stretches out to, NASA’s views are Mars may be in the 2040s.”
His “New Space” company, Bigelow Aerospace of Las Vegas, designs space habitats, including a fully self-contained space station with 330 cubic meters of living and working space, which he said is ready for a lower-Earth orbit or, in about three years given the expected advancements in rocketry, for lunar orbit.
Bigelow Aerospace is marketing its B330 station for combined use by astronauts representing private industry research and commercial exploration, NASA, pure science research, and space tourism. He would not disclose how much a B330 would cost but said it would be nowhere near reported estimates of $500 million.
Bigelow said he is picking up President Donald Trump signals that he wants to see something exciting happening with NASA in his first term, and Bigelow believes that is a signal to those inside NASA to start thinking moon again.
In his address to the joint session of Congress Tuesday, Trump made a vague reference to “American footprints on distant worlds.” Earlier reports citing unnamed administrative sources, according to SpaceNews.com and other industry news operations, said Trump was interested in NASA taking on bold initiatives right away.
And any time a new president takes office, NASA’s missions all go on the table.
Bigelow Aerospace has been working up the lunar plans for years. After hearing Trump’s speech, he decided to promote them on Twitter Wednesday morning.
When FloridaPolitics.com called for elaboration, he returned the call.
“In view of President Trump’s initiative in trying to make something happen here in the next four years, which obviously a big challenge if you want to do something meaningful, we think this is doable,” Bigelow said. “We think if America deploys a lunar depot, that is going to speak volumes. That is going to have a significant effect, because you don’t really have to land something on the moon to let people know you have lunar plans.”
Bigelow said his company had ongoing conversations with NASA for about three years about the prospect of Bigelow-manufactured depots assisting the space agency’s plans, whether it is to prepare for a Mars mission or a return to the moon.
NASA has been noncommittal. Bigelow said his company also has concepts for moon surface bases.
“NASA is looking to see what it is President Trump is ready to do. So we stand ready as a company, as do others, to get on board and try to make things happen,” he said.
That will require two technological advances, but both are in the works. And it would involve business deals that have nothing to do with NASA — just space companies selling their services to each other.
There currently are no rockets with the room inside to carry a B330.
However, United Launch Alliance is redesigning its Atlas V rocket with a much bigger payload fairing, under the design known as the Atlas 552.
Last year, ULA and Bigelow signed an agreement to launch a B330 on the first Atlas 552 flight, in 2020.
That would get the private space station into lower Earth orbit. To get a B330 to the moon will require another set of boosters. Enter the ULA’s “Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage” boosters, refuelable, reusable boosters that could be put in orbit, then reused. They also should be available around then. Two of them could be attached to a B330 already in Earth’s orbit, and carry it to the moon, Bigelow said.
Finally, there is the matter of getting astronauts onboard.
The B330 is designed to have long-term, live-in astronauts, or to sit there and wait for occasional visitors. It houses up to six.
Earlier this week, SpaceX announced its plans to start sending private citizen astronauts around the moon by the end of 2018.
“I checked with SpaceX. They said ‘Yes! We would be ready, willing, able and very interested in providing capsule transportation for crew and cargo to that location,” he said. “At the same time, if the Lockheed Orion were on schedule and ready to launch with the SLS we are incorporating the possibility that both of those other programs, the Boeing SLS and the Lockheed Orion.
“There is something potentially in there for everybody,” Bigelow said.
And it could do something for NASA justification. America’s space agency is spending tens of billions of dollars to develop Lockheed’s deep-space Orion capsule and the next-generation SLS rocket, which is being created by several space companies, including Boeing.
But NASA has not quite figured out what to do with them.
Eventually, the rocket and capsule would be used for Mars missions. Until then, they’re to be used for missions to prepare for Mars.
NASA planned an asteroid mission, but that had significant opposition in Congress, and the space agency has been reassessing. NASA has not planned a moon mission, but there is some advocacy for that in Congress, and perhaps in the Trump administration.
NASA has argued the SLS and Orion could go any place in the solar system, but hasn’t actually identified any place else to go.
If the SLS and Orion were programmed to bring astronauts and supplies to a lunar space station, Bigelow argued: “It really gives the Orion and the SLS a legitimate mission. That is something that is badly needed, of course.”
“Two transportation systems and a depot would be extremely valuable and important for the next round of lunar activities,” he said.
Bigelow Aerospace’s business plan is for its space stations to be marketed much like a time share. Researchers, business interests, tourists, NASA or any other government space agency would book time. Whatever time they want to pay for.