Bigelow Aerospace

(Note : there is no commercial relationship between Bigelow Aerospace and Swiss Space Tourism, a non-profit Association).

Bigelow Aerospace is a space company founded in 1999 by Robert Bigelow whose goal is to develop a space station using inflatable modules to commercialize stays in space with private individuals. Wikipedia reference, February 2019

The company has taken over the developments and patents from NASA’s Transhab project which was considering exploiting this technique for the International Space Station as it allowed for significant mass gain. The company has developed several prototypes of inflatable modules, two of which, Genesis I and Genesis II, were put into orbit in 2006 and 2007.

The company’s research, in which more than US $ 250 million (2013) has so far been invested, is funded by the fortune of its creator, owner of the Budget Suites of America hotel chain. Bigelow Aerospace employs approximately 100 people and is headquartered in North Las Vegas, Nevada, USA.

A third BEAM prototype is to be launched in 2015 and moored to the International Space Station. Bigelow has developed several more ambitious projects but these have been canceled so far (Galaxy, Sundancer) or their launch date has been postponed (BA 330).

An expandable module is a structure that has a flexible outer shell, allowing a reduction in diameter for launch and total weight. Once in orbit, the module is inflated to provide more work space and living space, and relaxation for astronauts. Such expandable modules were first proposed and designed by NASA under the Transhab program. Following the cancellation of this program, Bigelow Aerospace has entered into three Space Act agreements, which state that Bigelow Aerospace is the only one able to commercialize many of NASA’s key expandable module technologies. The company is developing a family of prototype commercial space modules and stations.

Bigelow Aerospace expects its inflatable modules to be more durable than rigid modules12. This is partially due to the company’s use of several layers of Vectran, a material twice as robust as Kevlar, and also because, in theory, flexible walls should be able to better withstand the impacts of micrometeorites than rigid walls. In the ground tests, micrometeorites that were able to punch the standard materials of the ISS modules, only penetrated mid-thickness of the Bigelow walls. Director of Operations Mike Gold said that Bigelow modules would not suffer as much from the same local burst issues as metal modules. This could result in up to 24 hours time saving for perforations by comparison to the most severe micrometeorite damage results for the standard ISS4 wall.

Bigelow is pioneering a new market in a flexible and configurable set of space habitats. In addition, industry observers have pointed out that Bigelow is demonstrating boldness of these pioneers of a “capital-intensive, highly regulated industry like spaceflight”. Bigelow Aerospace recently announced that it has entered into agreements with six states to use its future facilities in orbit of commercial space stations : the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Australia, Singapore, Japan and Sweden.