Mockups of Bigelow Aerospace's expandable habitats on display at the company's Las Vegas, Nevada, headquarters. Image credit: Bill Ingalls/NASA

Feb 7, 2015 U.S. takes step to support business on the Moon

Sen—For Robert Bigelow, founder and president of Bigelow Aerospace, developing a base on the Moon is not fundamentally about making money. More important is staking a U.S. claim for lunar resources and services before the country finds itself eclipsed by rising space powers, most notably China.

 “I have said publicly how much I respect China’s economic progress, the prosperity of its people. The commercialization and capitalism they have embraced is absolutely admirable,” Bigelow said in an interview.

 “That’s an engine that’s probably not going to stop. They are too good at being able to set the direction of their country,” he said.

In contrast, the United States is “crisis-driven,” without political cohesion, and broke to boot, Bigelow said.

 “The United States doesn’t have the financial capacity to go back to the moon and establish a permanent human occupancy. So we start there … If the country is really lucky, there are going to be a few companies that could make the difference – maybe,” he said.

To that end, Bigelow Aerospace decided to test the regulatory waters by submitting a proposal for a planned lunar habitat for review by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which oversees commercial space transportation in the United States.

The idea was to see if the FAA would widen the scope of its launch licensing authority to protect lunar operations of one U.S. company from interference by another.

After extensive discussions with officials from the U.S. departments of State, Defense, Commerce and other agencies, including NASA, the FAA this week said it would leverage its authority “to encourage private sector investments in space systems by ensuring that commercial activities can be conducted on a non-interference basis.”

Bigelow called the policy change a “first little baby step,” in trying to provide assistance to U.S. companies aspiring to create businesses that operate beyond Earth orbit.

“We look at asset protection as very important,” Bigelow said. “You need to have some kind of harmony in surface operations. Good fences make good neighbors. So the first thing is 'Don’t sanction a launch from the United States that is vectored into the very area that other people are already occupying.' That kind of makes good sense not to do that.

“That’s where we appealed to the FAA (Commercial Space Transportation Office) and asked for help, and through an extensive process involving a lot of agencies, they agreed. I think it’s a really responsible decision to make, a logical one,” Bigelow said.

The next step would be to define the boundary zones, regions that would surround not only the proposed habitats, but also areas being explored, mined or hosting science or other operations.

“It doesn’t mean there’s ownership,” Bigelow said. “It just means that somebody else isn’t licensed to land on top of you or land on top of where exploration activities are going on and prospecting activities are going on. That might be quite a distance from the lunar station,” he said.

In its response to Bigelow's request for a payload review, the FAA said it already is working with the State department and other agencies to develop a licensing framework that will “enable and support, in a manner consistent with our international legal obligations, innovative commercial space activities."

Bigelow’s plan is to host scientists, engineers, researchers and businesses in company-owned habitats in Earth orbit and on the Moon. Potential customers include NASA and other countries’ space agencies.

“We’re talking about a different way of looking at humans in space activity. It’s no longer driven just by exploration. That’s a shallow reservoir of money,” Bigelow said.

"Historically, it has always been that way, “ he added, with commercial, business and trade following—and eventually surpassing—government spending on exploration efforts.

“That’s what’s needed in this case too,” Bigelow said.