Bigelow And SpaceX Form Partnership To Bring Tourists To Space
May 11, 2012

Bigelow And SpaceX Form Partnership To Bring Tourists To Space

Two companies in the aerospace industry are joining together to launch tourists into space and check them into orbiting space habitats.

Hawthorne, California-based Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) and Bigelow Aerospace (BA) of Las Vegas on Thursday announced the partnership to promote space travel to international customers. Tourists will fly to space aboard SpaceX´s Dragon spacecraft and dock with Bigelow´s BA330 inflatable space habitats.

“This is an incredibly exciting venture,” Kirstin Grantham, a spokeswoman for SpaceX, told Jennifer Robison of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “Our partnership with Bigelow should present opportunities to businesses and governments that previously didn't have access to space.”

“We´re very excited to be working with our colleagues at SpaceX to present the unique services that our two companies can offer to international clientele,” said Bigelow´s president and founder, Robert T. Bigelow. “We´re eager to join them overseas to discuss the substantial benefits that BA 330 leasing can offer in combination with SpaceX transportation capabilities.”

Bigelow and SpaceX´s Elon Musk have been discussing a possible partnership for the past several years. Bigelow originally licensed the TransHab technology from NASA after it was dropped from ISS plans due to budget shortfalls. He founded his aerospace company to develop the inflatable habitats. After rapid progress, Bigelow Aerospace launched Genesis proof-of-concept modules on Russian Dnepr rockets in 2006 and 2007. The two 11.5 cubic meter modules were a success, giving BA a reason to move forward with larger modules.

BA´s new space modules -- BA330 habitats -- will provide nearly 330 cubic meters of usable volume and will be able to support a crew of up to six. Bigelow Aerospace plans to connect two or more habitats in orbit to provide space agencies, companies, universities, and others with access to an environment unlike any they have experienced before.  Each habitat weighs about 22 tons.

Regardless of how the modules make into space, SpaceX´s Falcon 9 and Dragon rockets should be low-cost passenger carriers. BA and SpaceX said in a press release that they will market the new service in Japan first, right after SpaceX´s attempt to dock its Dragon at the ISS on May 19. Until that time, everyone at SpaceX is most likely too occupied getting ready for that mission to worry about anything else.

With success in Japan, the two companies may move on to Dubai and the United Arab Emirates, where Bigelow signed a memorandum of understanding in 2011 to work on microgravity research and development. Bigelow´s spacecraft will give many countries the ability to conduct space station research at a fraction of the cost it took to build the ISS. Bigelow may also lease the habitats, dropping the price for access even further.

“SpaceX and BA have a lot in common. Both companies were founded to help create a new era in space enterprise,” said SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell. “Together we will provide unique opportunities to entities -- whether nations or corporations -- wishing to have crewed access to the space environment for extended periods.”

“I´m looking forward to working with Bigelow Aerospace and engaging with international customers,” he added.

Bigelow, who made his fortunes in the hotel industry, turned his attention to spaceflight nearly 15 years ago. Besides partnering with SpaceX, it is also working with Boeing to develop a spacecraft to ferry crews to the ISS.

SpaceX, which just passed ten years in business, designs, manufactures and launches rockets and spacecraft from Cape Canaveral in Florida and California´s Vandenberg Air Force Base. In 2010, SpaceX became the first commercial corporation to put a spacecraft into orbit and return it safely to Earth.

Grantham said the companies aren´t ready to discuss what flights would cost, but she said it would cost “significantly less than what is currently available.”

While there is no industry average for pricing, tickets for a ride on Richard Branson´s Virgin Galactic spacecraft cost at least $200,000 per seat. In comparison, NASA pays Russia $60 million a seat to get its astronauts to the ISS.

Also there is no sign of what it is going to cost the companies to get the project airborne, but SpaceX has a $75 million NASA grant to modify rockets built to launch satellites to instead carry people in spacecraft.

The technologies both companies have are workable and proven, said Joseph Katz, a professor of aerospace engineering at San Diego State University.