COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo.—Bigelow Aerospace’s expandable space habitat just arrived at the International Space Station, but the company is already thinking about the next steps: flying even larger inflatable habitats into space to be used for research and even space hotels.
The company announced at a conference here Monday that starting in 2020 the United Launch Alliance, the joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, would deliver the habitats to space, where they would orbit the Earth more than a couple hundred miles high.
The deal was heralded as a significant step toward commercializing space and creating a viable self-sustaining economy where businesses could thrive without being propped up by government. The companies said that the deal marked the “first-ever commercial partnership between a launch provider and a habitat provider.”
New industries would proliferate, predicted Robert Bigelow, founder of Bigelow Aerospace, and “help pay for the future pursuit of eventual lunar enterprises.”
On Friday, SpaceX ferried a smaller Bigelow habitat to the space station under its contract to resupply the station with cargo and science experiments. The module, made of a Kevlar-like substance, is scheduled to soon be attached to the station, and tested to see how it fares against the heat, radiation and debris floating around in space.
Astronauts will enter that habitat, called the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM, a few times a year to inspect how it is doing and take measurements. About the size of a small bedroom, the BEAM would stay on the station for two years, before being jettisoned.