Commercial space industry wants a piece of NASA’s deep space exploration plans.
Before the 2016 presidential election, businessman Robert Bigelow was one of the few people in the aerospace community to openly support Donald Trump's presidential campaign. Now that Trump is in office, Bigelow says the new administration is moving forward with a realistic space exploration plan that focuses on the Moon, rather than Mars.
"Finally, we have someone practically engaged in the conversation here," he said Friday, during an interview with Ars. "The prior administration excluded the Moon, but that was really unrealistic. With Mars, there are issues with cost, and more. The Moon offers by far the most practical target in the near term, and of course the Moon has a far superior business case at the current time than asteroids or Mars."
During recent weeks, Bigelow said he has spoken with Trump administration officials interested in space and talked about plans to jump-start NASA's human exploration program. Senior leaders within the Trump administration are interested in reaching some significant milestones by the end of President Trump's first term, in 2020. That led Bigelow to formulate a plan to have an orbital, human-tended outpost flying around the Moon by that time.
A lunar station
Bigelow's company, in conjunction with NASA, launched an experimental expandable module called BEAM to the International Space Station in 2016. So far the BEAM habitat has performed well in orbit, demonstrating equal or superior radiation shielding than traditional aluminum modules on the station. This bodes well for a company looking to deploy habitats in deep space, beyond the protection of Earth's radiation belts.
With its BEAM experience and data, the company has gained confidence in its next generation of expandable in-space habitats, the B330 module. It is so named because it offers 330 cubic meters of interior space, about one-third the volume of the entire International Space Station. Bigelow said Friday the company has built several different full-scale prototypes of the B330 and is working toward completing four full-scale units for qualification testing.
Bigelow said he has talked with United Launch Alliance Chief Executive Tory Bruno about using the company's Atlas V 552 rocket, which has an extra-wide payload fairing, to deliver the B330 into orbit. Additionally, United Launch Alliance is developing an advanced upper-stage vehicle, ACES, to provide in-space propulsion. Two of these in tandem could be used to move the B330 into a low lunar orbit, perhaps to within 75km of the lunar surface, Bigelow said. Finally, he has also spoken to SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell about using the company's Dragon 2 spacecraft to transport astronauts to the B330 in deep space.
The upside of all this? Bigelow believes that by as early as 2020, NASA astronauts—as well as commercial partners—could be living and working in lunar orbit inside a functional space station. For the Trump administration, an orbiting depot would "send a message" that a real space exploration program has begun, Bigelow said.
A lunar gold rush?
Bigelow is not alone in offering the Trump administration options to move astronauts into deep space more quickly. During the last month, NASA has talked about accelerating the launch of crew on its Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft to as early as 2019. The craft would launch into a long loop around the Moon and back. SpaceX founder Elon Musk has also said his company could perform a similar mission, as early as 2018, with the Dragon 2 spacecraft and Falcon Heavy rocket. And finally, Jeff Bezos has been talking to the Trump administration about using Blue Origin vehicles to deliver cargo and eventually crew to the lunar surface.
The Trump administration has yet to formally decide upon a space policy, and industry experts say NASA and the private companies have been receiving mixed signals. On one hand, it seems clear the Trump administration would like to do something with humans in deep space, soon, and focus on a lunar exploration program. But the administration has not made clear whether it intends to do that solely with government vehicles—the SLS rocket and Orion—or is opening the door to cheaper, commercial alternatives to do at least part of the job.
What does seem clear is that the commercial industry sees an opportunity to put forth its best ideas to see what may come of them. "I'm incredibly enthusiastic about the options that SpaceX and Blue Origin are offering for deep space transportation and the possibilities they offer commercial and government customers," said Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation. "I think it's a great time in the industry, and we're seeing an eagerness to go beyond the norm of low Earth orbit."
The final decisions will fall to the Trump administration, where Vice President Mike Pence may have an important say. Any decisions are likely to wait until Pence reconstitutes the National Space Council, however. That may not happen until late spring at the earliest, given the many issues now facing the new president.