January 17, 2013
So we’ve come full circle. Bigelow Aerospace, who based their Genesis inflatable space module on a NASA research project, is now selling back to the space agency its own technology. That’s probably a win-win outcome, though, since the contract — to test a prototype “expandable” module on the International Space Station starting in 2015 — may help keep Bigelow going, and should cost the government less in the long run.
Robert T. Bigelow, who made his money in the hotel business, got the idea for inflatable space habitats from NASA’s Transhab project of the 1990s. In fact, it was reading our April/May 1999 story on Transhab (here’s a downloadable PDF) and other similar articles in the popular press that inspired him. Practically everyone at the time thought Transhab was cool, and potentially very useful. But it didn’t fit into NASA’s plans for the space station, and was abandoned. Bigelow was eccentric enough, or maybe visionary enough — we’ll see how it plays out — to pick up the concept and see it through to launch his twin Genesis modules.
Only one thing bothers me about yesterday’s announcement. Bigelow is often held out by the New Space faithful as a key player in a would-be private economy based in Earth orbit. SpaceX and others would provide the rides, and Bigelow would provide the hotel/lab space. Once again, though, the only one stepping forward with money to make things happen is the U.S. government. Bigelow seems to still have plans for a private orbital module, but so far it’s just that — plans.
By the way, NASA apparently doesn’t like using the word “inflatable” anymore, since it conjures images of party balloons and Jiffy Pop.
Whatever. You fill it up with air.