A new partnership between leaders in the commercial space race seeks to develop a space station that can be leased for private research, allowing national space agencies, companies, and universities access to a "microgravity" environment. The companies involved will be SpaceX and Bigelow Aerospace, both run by visionaries who draw their inspiration from personal goals that are so far advanced that they sound right out of science fiction movies.
SpaceX will make history this week when it becomes the first company to dock a privately developed spacecraft with the International Space Station (ISS). However, the ISS is not open to the public. This is where Bigelow Aerospace steps in. They have developed the BA 330 habitat, an inflatable space station that runs on solar and battery power. The concept for the unit stems from a NASA project that was canceled. Bigelow Aerospace picked it up and has launched two successful prototypes to demonstrate the feasibility of the technology.
The 330 in BA 330 reflects the number of cubic meters of volume the inflatable habitat provides. It is enough room to house six space-farers. Several of these units can be connected in orbit to provide enough space to serve multiple sets of guests for extended periods of time.
With SpaceX's prowess at launching vehicles into space and a promising space station technology developed by Bigelow, the possibility of leasing a space station, no matter how fantastic it sounds, may become reality.
SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell says:
SpaceX and BA have a lot in common. Both companies were founded to help create a new era in space enterprise. 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.
Such fantastic plans can only come from two true visionaries who think more than outside the box, but outside the planet. Recently, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk told 60 Minutes that the reason he seeks to develop spacecraft is to save humanity itself. He says:
I think it's important that humanity become a multiplanet species. I think most people would agree that a future where we are a space-faring civilization is inspiring and exciting compared with one where we are forever confined to Earth until some eventual extinction event. That's really why I started SpaceX.
Robert Bigelow, the founder of Bigelow Aerospace, also has some lofty ideas inspiring his ventures into space. In the '90s, Bigelow started the National Institute for Discovery Science, which scientifically investigated paranormal phenomena, including UFOs. Recently Bigelow Aerospace funded investigations conducted by the Mutual UFO Network, and they currently receive UFO reports from the FAA.
"I've been a researcher and student of U.F.O.'s for many, many years," Bigelow told The New York Times. "Anybody that does research, if people bother to do quality research, come away absolutely convinced. You don't have to have personal encounters."
The two companies plan to meet in Japan to discuss their marketing plans for the space station project soon after the launch of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft.
Private space stations, humanity colonizing other planets for survival, researching UFOs to develop space craft: These are themes found in some of my favorite sci-fi movies, and are now manifesting in real life. It feels like this commercial space race has snuck up on us and is all of a sudden in full swing. Pretty dang exciting if you ask me. I guess I will need to move aside my Star Trek and Star Wars movie posters, and make room for some SpaceX and Bigelow Aerospace paraphernalia.
Follow Alejandro Rojas on Twitter: www.twitter.com/AstroATR