On Tuesday morning, the billionaire hotelier and noted believer in extraterrestrials Robert Bigelow announced at a press conference that he had created a new company called Bigelow Space Operations to capitalize on demand for human operations in Low Earth Orbit. The company is a public facing partner of Bigelow Aerospace, which was founded 20 years ago and is focused on manufacturing inflatable human space habitats.
The announcement comes just weeks after the Trump administration expressed its desire to cut federal funding for the International Space Station after current international agreements expire in 2024. The question is what happens after funding to the ISS is cut, and so far there haven’t been any good answers besides some vague hand waving at the idea of commercializing the ISS. According to Bigelow, the lack of any sort of post-ISS game plan raises “a couple of very serious concerns” about the future of human access to Low Earth Orbit.
Speaking to reporters on a teleconference call, Bigelow said that the repurposing or closure of the International Space Station “ought to be done in parallel with NASA acclimating itself to commercial structures and platforms so it’s not a zero sum game where one day you have it and the next day you don’t as far as the ISS is concerned.”
“If the ISS is repurposed and changed in 2025, it is going to be a political episode,” Bigelow said. “It needs to have a solution that is worked on now in conjunction with the commercial space station players. This is a very serious problem and one that from my perspective I don’t see being addressed.”
The role of Bigelow Space Operations, in this sense, will be to provide an option for corporations and countries to maintain a human presence in space after the defunding of the ISS. To this end, the company has been testing an inflatable habitat on the International Space Station since 2016 and is currently manufacturing two B330s, its flagship commercial space station.
Bigelow Space Operations plans to place the B330s in orbit by 2021, but according to Bigelow, there are two actors that threaten to undermine the transition to commercially operated space stations: China and NASA.
According to Bigelow, China is the least of the two “big problems” for the future of commercial space stations. In the last decade, China—which was originally cut out of collaboration on the ISS—has seen its space program explode. Today, it is actively courting current ISS partner nations for collaboration on its own space station, which it plans to launch to have completed by the early 2020s. These are the same countries that would be potential customers for Bigelow and if they decide to enter into contracts to use China’s space station it would drastically reduce the size of the market for commercial space stations.
“China is offering very attractive terms, conditions and features that commercial sector is going to have a horrible time trying to compete with,” Bigelow said.
Yet the main threat to Bigelow’s commercial space stations is not China’s space station, but NASA’s own deep space ambitions. According to Bigelow, NASA is effectively forsaking international partnerships in Low Earth Orbit in favor of international collaboration on deep space programs like Gateway, a space station that would be in orbit between the Earth and the Moon—significantly farther from the Earth than Low Earth Orbit.
“If those ISS partners are now being courted to participate in deep space operations, they may not have much money left in terms of being a customer for Low Earth Orbit,” Bigelow said. “We’re all in favor of Gateway, but that shouldn’t be the only thing offered to the partners. They should have the ability to have money left over to spend it on Low Earth Operations.”
In short, Bigelow is afraid that the lack of any plan for the ISS beyond 2024 will push countries to partner with China for access to a Low Earth Orbit space station rather than commercial actors like Bigelow Space Operations. At the same time, these countries’ budgets for human space exploration will also be strained by commitments to NASA for projects like the Gateway station and lower the demand for human access to Low Earth Orbit.
In order to convince the Trump administration, other countries, and commercial actors that Low Earth Orbit commercial space stations are a desirable from an economic and policy standpoint, Bigelow Space Operations will first have to prove that there is actually a market for their product. To this end, Bigelow said that his new company will be spending millions of dollars “to understand what the hell a commercial market looks like on a global basis, once and for all.”
“Right now there is a real lack of quality data telling us here's what you really have globally in terms of a market,” Bigelow said. “Everyone's talking about commercial space this and that, but talk is easy. By the time Christmas arrives we should have a much better understanding of what this commercialization of humans in space really amounts to.”