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ULA is teaming up with Bigelow Aerospace to launch commercial space habitats

The United Launch Alliance will launch Bigelow Aerospace’s inflatable space hotel on its Atlas V rocket sometime in 2020, the two companies announced today at the 32nd Space Symposium in Colorado Springs. ULA has reserved a launch slot for the habitat, but neither company would say if a launch contract has been signed yet.

Bigelow plans to build two full-scale B330 stations by 2019

Bigelow is working on an expandable space habitat, called the B330, that would be a so-called commercial space hotel. The modules are compact during launch and inflate in space. Fully inflated, it would provide 330 cubic meters (12,000 cubic feet) of internal volume for crew members in orbit. That makes more overall room for crew — or what the company is calling “amateur astronauts.” The company’s chief executive officer Robert Bigelow, said today the company plans to build two full-scale B330 stations by 2019. Both could be sent to space by 2020.

According to Bigelow, the Atlas V rocket is the only vehicle capable of launching the B330 into lower Earth orbit. (SpaceX’s rockets are smaller on top and can’t hold as much, he said.) His goal is to get his inflatable space habitat attached to the International Space Station. NASA would be his main customer, since the B330 would increase the ISS’s total volume by almost a third, the CEO said. But ideally, paying customers would live there too. “Our hope is that NASA would be the primary customer for that structure and we’d be given permission [to commercialize it],” said Bigelow. “Essentially we’d be timesharing.” In the case of such a deal, Bigelow expects NASA’s commercial crew providers, SpaceX and Boeing, to transport people to and from the B330.

Details on the ULA partnership aren’t clear

The company already has one partnership with NASA, on a different inflatable habitat called BEAM. It launched to the ISS on a SpaceX resupply mission on Friday, April 8th. The BEAM will be attached to the ISS in the coming months. Once inflated, it will remain for two years in order to see how well expandable technology holds up in space. A suite of sensors on board the BEAM will gather data about the module’s stay at the space station and provide data to Bigelow; this data will inform the design of the B330.

The B330 hasn’t been built yet, and details on the ULA partnership aren’t clear. The companies declined to say how much the partnership would cost. Nor would Bigelow say how the company is paying for the Atlas V launch. “It’s premature to talk in specifics about these kinds of things,” Bigelow said. ULA’s CEO Tory Bruno said that they’re “exploring how to accomplish this.”


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