United Launch Alliance (ULA) and Bigelow Aerospace have announced a joint venture to launch an inflatable lunar habitat. Both companies envisage the habitat facilitating commercial opportunities, scientific research, and even lunar astronaut training for the likes of NASA and Roscosmos.
“We are excited to work with ULA on this lunar depot project,” said the president of Bigelow Aerospace, Robert Bigelow. “It will provide NASA and America with an exciting and financially practical success opportunity that can be accomplished in the short term.”
The B330 habitat will be one of the first payloads to be launched aboard an ultra-heavy lift rocket currently being developed by ULA, the Vulcan. Cheekily, the official ULA press release for the partnership boasted that the Vulcan was, “the only commercial launch vehicle in development today with sufficient performance and a large enough payload fairing to carry the habitat.” However, both SpaceX’s BFR and Blue Origin’s New Glenn will have more than the required capacity to launch the B330.
Following the launch of the main habitat module, an additional two Vulcan launches will lift the ULA’s Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage (ACES) and its cryogenic propellant. The ACES will provide the thrust required to transport the inflatable lunar habitat to the Moon and deploy into a lower lunar orbit.
Once in orbit, a single B330 inflatable lunar habitat module will offer one-third of the pressurised volume of the International Space station. Additionally, modules can be connected together to quickly offer additional volume. The Bigelow Aerospace inflatable habitat system is, as a result, a uniquely adaptable and easy to deploy alternative to the traditional approach to space stations.
Over 45 years after the Apollo missions set humankind on the lunar surface, we are again racing to see who can get there first. With the NASA/Roscosmos, Moon Express/Nanoracks, SpaceX and Lockheed Martin lunar missions in full swing, Bigelow Aerospace, and ULA have a lot of ground to cover. Bigelow, however, has set an ambitious target for the endeavor stating, “This lunar depot could be deployed easily by 2022 to support the nation’s re-energized plans for returning to the Moon.”
Image Credit: Bigelow Aerospace