CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - The company behind the inflatable room currently on the International Space Station and reliable launch provider United Launch Alliance announced plans Tuesday to partner on a station orbiting the moon by 2022.
The partnership is the latest in private-public companies announcing plans for moon missions.
Bigelow Aerospace would use ULA's future Vulcan rocket to launch its expandable B330 module and two corresponding payloads with propellant to build the Lunar Depot in low-Earth orbit, according to a news release.
B330 launches at one-third its full size and expands up to 330 cubic meters. The system can house up to six crew members.
Its many uses, according to Bigelow Aerospace, include microgravity research, space farming and a private space yacht.
Bigelow sent an expandable habitat, the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM, to the International Space Station for testing in 2016. The inflatable room is still holding up well at the Space Station, and NASA is considering extending the contract with Bigelow for long-term storage use on ISS.
“We are so pleased to be able to continue our relationship with Bigelow Aerospace,” ULA CEO Tory Bruno said. “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.”
Bigelow Aerospace posted a video animation of the future inflating orbiter, in which the Vulcan rocket launches spacecraft to dock with the lunar station. Spacecraft, including SpaceX Crew Dragon and Boeing's Starliner, could dock at the lunar depot, bringing supplies and crew.
The first part of the spacecraft, the B330 module would be inflated while in Earth orbit, post-launch. Vulcan would then launch the engines to be attached to the Lunar Depot and propel the spacecraft to the moon, according to the animation.
Bigelow Aerospace president Robert Bigelow described the orbiting base as a stepping stone toward eventual Mars missions.
"Our lunar depot plan is a strong complement to other plans intended to eventually put people on Mars," Bigelow said in a news release. "It will provide NASA and America with an exciting and financially practical success opportunity that can be accomplished in the short term."
As more companies announce plans to return to the moon, it seems inevitable that humans will once again step foot on the lunar surface. After the new White House administration expressed interest in returning to the moon, more companies have followed suit in announcing lunar missions.
Earlier this year, SpaceX founder Elon Musk announced plans to send two private citizens on a trip around the moon in 2018. Last month, Musk revealed plans for building a moon base using its future Interplanetary Transport Vehicle, in addition to colonizing Mars.
Musk offered few details about the plans, but wowed the International Astronautical Congress crowd in Australia with the idea of using the spacecraft, nicknamed BFR, to take people from one end of the earth to the other in 30 minutes for the price of a flight.
Musk said he plans to have the first BFR launch by 2022.
NASA Space Launch System’s first crewless launch, EM-1, targeted for no earlier than December 2019, will orbit the moon and return to Earth. SLS has faced many delays and budgeting problems, but will one day launch astronauts on deep-space missions from NASA's Kennedy Space Center, according to the agency.
Moon Express CEO Bob Richards has built his Cape Canaveral-based commercial company around building a moon base.
Moon Express is one of the five finalist competing for the Google Lunar Xprize, which will award $30 million to the first private company to land a mission on the moon by the end of this year.
With 2017 coming to a close, it’s possible a U.S. company could return to the moon in the near future.
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