Bigelow Aerospace (BA) announced on April 11 that it is partnering with the United Launch Alliance (ULA), the joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing, to launch inflatable habitats to space for research and tourism purposes.

The said inflatable volumes, with a working name of XBASE or Expandable Bigelow Advanced Station Enhancement, will be deployed in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). Aside from its benefits to scientific and industrial sectors, the project has a great potential to promote space tourism and help missions to the moon and Mars.

The habitats will be derived from the Bigelow Aerospace B330 expandable module, such that it will boast 30 cubic meters (1,059 cubic feet) of space inside. The said habitat will enable scientists to perform zero-gravity experiments, scientific projects and manufacturing developments.

Plans of initial launch to orbit is set for the year 2020 at the Atlas V 552 launch vehicle of the ULA.

Finding The Right Spot

"We are exploring options for the location of the initial B330 including discussions with NASA on the possibility of attaching it to the International Space Station (ISS)," says BA founder Robert Bigelow. With this, he adds that their craft will expand the volume of the ISS by about 30 percent and may function as a test area to support NASA's goals and give important commercial opportunities.

NASA's commercial crew will provide transportation services to the B330, regardless if it will dock to the ISS or remain free-flying.

Positive Partnership

The heads of BA and the ULA only have positive words to say about each other's companies as well as their potential respective contributions to the project.

Bigelow says the ULA gives a legacy of firm mission triumphs, schedule precision and cost-effective solutions. These are the things he has in mind when looking for a vehicle to launch the company's big and novel spacecraft.

Meanwhile, ULA CEO Tony Bruno says their company could not be happier to collaborate with BA and save a launch slot for the advanced mission. He adds that this state-of-the-art breakthrough will significantly boost opportunities for space research in medicine, among other fields.

Bruno also says that the endeavor will allow destinations in space for companies, nations and even individuals more than what is existing at present, thus efficiently balancing space.

"We can't begin to imagine the future potential of affordable real estate in space," he says.

BA and the ULA are collaborating to develop their business and commercial marketing strategies. The B330 construction, as well as its integration to the Atlas V, are now in the works.

If and when this inflatable habitats become successful, expect that more B330s will be transported to other parts of space, including the moon and Mars, to accommodate the demand.

The very first inflatable module delivered to the ISS was also from BA and is called the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), brought there by SpaceX.

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