ULA and Bigelow expand association with lunar depot plan

by Chris Bergin and Chris Gebhardt

United Launch Alliance (ULA) and Bigelow Aerospace have updated their future plans via an agreement to launch a B330 module on a Vulcan rocket to an eventual home in Low Lunar Orbit. Set with a target date of 2022, the “Lunar Depot” could become a precursor to a Deep Space Gateway that NASA is interested in assembling later in the decade.

Bigelow To The Orbit of the Moon:

Robert Bigelow, the founder of Bigelow Aerospace, has held a long-time interest in the Moon, including the lunar surface.

A recent overview at the ISSR&D conference saw the American businessman cite – in cartoon form – the threat of falling behind the Chinese as a driver of his ambitions, along with a warning the United States needs to remain focused on international competition.

With the US government now moving NASA toward a path that could even result in a return to the lunar surface, Bigelow is well placed for providing module options that could be involved with such future missions.

With the company already associated with NASA under several agreements, actual space hardware from Bigelow is performing well on the International Space Station (ISS).

The Bigelow expandable module, BEAM, launched aboard SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket on the CRS-8 mission and has exceeded expectations to the point NASA is exploring an extended stay for the module to allow for further research on its long-term capabilities.

It was initially set to be a two-year experimental mission to validate expandable module technology in the human spaceflight arena.

Another part of an initial plan for Bigelow’s forward plan revolved around a historic announcement at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colorado in 2016.

2016-04-12-000759Bigelow and Tory Bruno, President and CEO of ULA discussed general terms of an agreement that would see the veteran Atlas V rocket launch two expandable Bigelow spacecraft by 2020.

The technology is not only based on BEAM, but the improvements over the years following the 2006 and 2007 launches of the Genesis I and Genesis II expandable Bigelow modules, which are still functioning in orbit today.

Since that time, Bigelow and its expandable technology systems have waited for the opportunity to provide human-based expandable habitat platforms in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) via the first commercial space stations placed into LEO.

2016-04-12-215535Per the announcement, the focus was on the potential to launch a B330 expandable module to the International Space Station.

During the press conference, Mr. Bigelow noted enthusiastically that one of these modules would account for approximately 30% of the current internal volume of the ISS.

Moreover, Mr. Bigelow stated B330 modules would provide more work space for NASA and potential commercial partners wishing to lease portions of the facility.

Moreover, the press conference also talked about the use of commercial transportation companies – specifically SpaceX (whose Dragon2 capsule featured in the press conference), Boeing, Sierra Nevada, and Blue Origin – to ferry crew to the space stations as well as perform resupply missions to them.

The latest announcement plays into all the aforementioned ambitions but moves the game into Low Lunar Orbit.

The timeline is still ambitious, with the claim the launch would result in the habitat being in place around the Moon by the end of 2022.

The launch would involve ULA’s new Vulcan rocket riding uphill in her 562 configuration, a vehicle ULA claims is the only commercial launch vehicle in development today with sufficient performance and a large enough payload fairing to carry the habitat.

The all-American Vulcan is expected to be ULA’s workhorse in the 2020s as Atlas V closes in on retirement due in part to somewhat unfair political pressure relating to her “foreign” engines.

However, the launch would need to be in 2021 – or the very start of 2022 – based on the proposed timeline due to the requirement to outfit the module in Low Earth Orbit.

Once released into LEO, the module would deploy its radiators and solar arrays, allowing for thermal conditioning and power to be supplied to the vehicle.

Providing everything checks out as planned, the module would then expand, via the “deployment of soft goods”.

Overviews show this module would spend up to a year in LEO on a “space trial”, being supplied by commercial crew vehicles – with the overview again depicting SpaceX Dragon 2 vehicles visiting the module. This is likely notional as SpaceX is yet to confirm an official association with this latest Bigelow plan.

However, it would be able to host numerous vehicles, including Starliner and Orion, given the requirement for vehicles to cater to the International Docking System Standard (IDSS).

The overview calls for crews to rotate every three or four months during the LEO space trial, storing supplies and outfitting the module ahead of its trip to its final destination.

That journey will involve two Vulcan rockets launching one of the stars of ULA’s future exploration goals, the ACES (Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stages), into LEO, with the second refueling the first.

The fully tanked ACES will then mate with the B330, on the opposite side of the docking port used by the crew vehicles, before firing up its engines and transporting the module to Low Lunar Orbit.

Once in orbit, it would be visited by crew vehicles – depicted as Orion in the overview.

Such a plan plays heavily into both NASA and ULA ambitions, NASA’s being its ongoing development of a Deep Space Gateway (DSG) near the Moon and ULA’s CISLunar plans.

Z3Mr. Bigelow has previously stated that “As a result of improvements in affordability and access to space, new industries are now becoming possible, and will eventually enable lunar enterprises in the 2021-2031 timeframe.”

This included some modules that are even larger than the B330, along with modules that could be placed on the surface of the Moon and Mars.

Initial comments surrounding the ULA and Bigelow association came before NASA was redirected towards a presence in Lunar orbit. NASA has since set its goals firmly on the Moon as a stepping stone to Mars and the commercial sector has taken note.

“We are excited to work with ULA on this lunar depot project,” Mr. Bigelow noted. “Our lunar depot plan is a strong complement to other plans intended to eventually put people on Mars. It will provide NASA and America with an exciting and financially practical success opportunity that can be accomplished in the short term.

“This lunar depot could be deployed easily by 2022 to support the nation’s re-energized plans for returning to the Moon.

“(It would) provide anchorage for significant lunar business development in addition to offering NASA and other governments the Moon as a new exciting location to conduct long-term exploration and astronaut training.”

2016-04-12-205933Interestingly, Bigelow again confirmed two B330s are being prepared and that the B330 production facility can accommodate the build of more than one B330 at a time – potentially allowing for construction of modules that could both cater for the ISS option and other destinations including the proposed Lunar Depot.

Fostering a growing relationship with ULA also solves the issue of shopping around for a launch provider capable of lofting their large modules.

“We are so pleased to be able to continue our relationship with Bigelow Aerospace,” said Tory Bruno, ULA’s president and CEO.

“The company is doing such tremendous work in the area of habitats for visiting, living and working off our planet and we are thrilled to be the ride that enables that reality.”

(Images: Bigelow, ULA and L2 Bigelow – along with several renders from L2 artist Nathan Koga – The full gallery of Nathan’s (SpaceX Dragon to MCT, SLS, Commercial Crew and more) L2 images can be *found here*)

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