(Sen) - Desert dwellers near Las Vegas will receive an unusual addition to the population at some point next year: a habitat built by Bigelow Aerospace.
Public details are still few, except for these: it is called The Guide, it's described as a "flight-like" test article that is somewhat smaller than an automobile, and it will be placed in a dry lake near Alamo sometime in the spring or summer of 2014.
This is just one of a series of tests that Bigelow is undertaking as it seeks to build one of its inflatable habitats on the Moon someday, said founder Robert Bigelow in a press conference Thursday.
"It's the simplest, least expensive base we can construct," he said, describing it as similar to what the company hopes to land on the Moon at some point.
"The brass ring for us is having a lunar base — as a company and in conjunction with other companies, and even other, possibly, foreign entities as well," he added.
Bigelow delivered his comments as part of a larger discussion concerning an unfunded Space Act agreement the company has with NASA. Earlier this year, NASA asked the firm to examine options for going beyond low-Earth orbit, perhaps as a forum for public-private partnerships.
The document's first of two phases is now complete, but not released to the public yet. That is expected to happen in the next couple of weeks.
NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver (left) and Robert Bigelow, president and founder of Bigelow Aerospace, next to the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) in January 2013. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
As an agency, NASA is trying to figure out where it will go next in the coming decades. NASA recently unveiled an as-yet unfunded plan to capture an asteroid and bring it back to Earth. A Congressional hearing this week, which included participation from NASA, also discussed options for eventually heading to Mars.
NASA, however, finds itself in a situation where it has grand plans and few dollars to achieve it. The agency is labouring under the effects of sequestration, a forced reduced-spending approach the U.S. government is dealing with as a result of its multi-trillion dollar debt.
That is where private industry can provide more options for the cash-strapped NASA. Its asssociate administrator for space operations, William Gerstenmaier, suggested that perhaps the agency would leave surface exploration of the Moon to entities such as Bigelow, while focusing on exploration in lunar orbit and "deep space" (which could include Mars).
"There's some interest in this area of how can we work with the private sector," said Gerstenmaier, who also participated in the press conference.
Bigelow Aerospace is attempting, as smart companies do, to diversify its customer base and projects on the road to its lunar habitat.
In 2007 and 2008 Bigelow launched two test space stations (Genesis I and II) into orbit. These modules, which are still functional today, are generating long-term data on how inflatable structures work in orbit.
Earlier this year, Bigelow signed an agreement with NASA to provide an inflatable "room" on the International Space Station. Once functional, the room will be the first one by Bigelow to house humans as well as equipment.
The company is also working on a Bigelow Orbiting Space Complex that will include flights by Boeing's CST-100 spacecraft, under development with NASA's commercial crew program.
The modules Bigelow constructs are made from Vectran, a material that is believed to be stronger and better than more traditional "aluminium can" components. They also feature shields to mitigate the impact of micrometeorites and other debris.