Bigelow, ULA Announce Plans for Lunar Depot

Bigelow B330 lunar depot with ULA ACES space tug. (Credit: Bigelow Aerospace)

Las Vegas, NV and Centennial, Colo., Oct. 17, 2017 (ULA/Bigelow Aerospace PR) – Bigelow Aerospace and United Launch Alliance (ULA) are working together to launch a B330 expandable module on ULA’s Vulcan launch vehicle.  The launch would place a B330 outfitted module in Low Lunar Orbit by the end of 2022 to serve as a lunar depot.

“We are excited to work with ULA on this lunar depot project,” said Robert Bigelow, president of Bigelow Aerospace. “Our lunar depot plan is a strong complement to other plans intended to eventually put people on Mars. It will provide NASA and America with an exciting and financially practical success opportunity that can be accomplished in the short term. This lunar depot could be deployed easily by 2022 to support the nation’s re-energized plans for returning to the Moon.

This commercial lunar depot would provide anchorage for significant lunar business development in addition to offering NASA and other governments the Moon as a new exciting location to conduct long-term exploration and astronaut training.”

The B330 would launch to Low Earth Orbit on a Vulcan 562 configuration rocket, the only commercial launch vehicle in development today with sufficient performance and a large enough payload fairing to carry the habitat. Once the B330 is in orbit, Bigelow Aerospace will outfit the habitat and demonstrate it is working properly.  Once the B330 is fully operational, ULA’s industry-unique distributed lift capability would be used to send the B330 to lunar orbit.  Distributed lift would also utilize two more Vulcan ACES launches, each carrying 35 tons of cryogenic propellant to low Earth orbit.  In LEO, all of the cryogenic propellant would be transferred to one of the Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage (ACES). The now full ACES would then rendezvous with the B330 and perform multiple maneuvers to deliver the B330 to its final position in Low Lunar Orbit.

“We are so pleased to be able to continue our relationship with Bigelow Aerospace,” said Tory Bruno, ULA’s president and CEO. “The company is doing such tremendous work in the area of habitats for visiting, living and working off our planet and we are thrilled to be the ride that enables that reality.”

Bigelow Aerospace is a destination-oriented company with a focus on expandable systems for use in a variety of space applications.  These NASA heritage systems provide for greater volume, safety, opportunity and economy than the aluminum alternatives.

The B330 is a standalone commercial space station that can operate in low Earth orbit, cislunar space and beyond.  A single B330 is comparable to one third of the current pressurized volume of the entire International Space Station.  Bigelow Aerospace is developing two B330 commercial space station habitats that will be ready for launch any time after 2020.

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  • windbourne

    how funny.
    By the time that ULA gets Vulcan working, both SX AND Blue Origin will have launch vehicles with bigger fairings and much larger capacity.
    In fact, if BFR is ready, it might be possible for them to put multiple BA-330s into LEO in 1 shot.
    And BO should be able to do it for a fraction of what ULA will charge.

  • Steve Ksiazek

    Bigelow could probably find more economical launch services, but neither BO or SpaceX will have that ACES-derived tug available to push the completed station from LEO to LLO. I assume that is what makes this deal unique for ULA.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Yes, what Bigelow Aerospace calls the “sovereign” space market.

    But then again, if American private enterprise does it they may just lose interest. since its hard to brag about how advanced your space program is if all you need to go to the Moon is to buy a ticket on “Priceline” 🙂

    Of course that will open up the even larger commercial markets and especially market for amateur scientists as well as researchers from schools that NASA would never even consider making a PI for one of their missions.

    Imagine the opportunities when its no more difficult to ship a rover to the Moon than to ship it to somewhere on Earth. Just as the expansion of railroads made do scientific research in the West easy for anyone, so will BFR and NG do for the Moon, and beyond.

  • This is simply a veiled attempt for DSG candidacy. Bigelow cannot win that though (Congress is going for the legacy approach on that). Bigelow is also completely unable to build and send a habitat to space, if they have to pay for it themselves (they cannot even pay ULA for the launch).

    Moreover, this requires Vulcan/ACES to work. Tory Bruno is on record saying that ACES is on indefinite hold/backburner right now, and that Vulcan will proceed with a new, bigger Centaur stage (then what envisioned originally for Vulcan) to match all 9 DoD mission profiles. This info was released a couple of weeks ago.

    All in all, this announcement is simply a continuation of the last one in 2016, with the lunar twist put in for DSG monies.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Until BFR and New Glenn are flying Bigelow Aerospace has no option other than the old pitch to NASA routine. But that will change when BFR and New Glenn are available. Also you really won’t need Aces if New Glenn has the ability to deliver it direct to lunar orbit.

  • windbourne

    I am amazed that ULA is NOT working on ACES at this time. That is their single biggest ace-in-the-hole at this time. And I suspect that SX/BO can (and will) develop one if ULA does not jump all over this soon.

  • windbourne

    Can SX develop a larger hammerhead?
    FH would be ideal to fly BA-330s.

  • Tim Helmer

    What are they smoking?

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    “In fact, if BFR is ready, it might be possible for them to put multiple BA-330s into LEO in 1 shot.”
    OR, save time and money and just put a BFS into LEO or LLO. Using BFS to carry BA-330 is like using an RV just to carry a tent – why not just stay in the RV?.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    If we take ULA/Bigelow timeline to be anywhere near plausible, then it leaves me wondering if BFS will be cheaper than BA-330. Why use BFR to take BA-330 to LLO is BFS is 2 to 2.5 times the volume of BA-330, and comes complete with a propulsion system.

  • Paul451

    Why use BFR to take BA-330 to LLO is BFS is 2 to 2.5 times the volume of BA-330, and comes complete with a propulsion system.

    However, BFR is capable of launching 6 BA-330’s in a single launch.

    Or a single BA-3200 (assuming relatively linear scaling from 330-2100). Or a BA-2100 with the core-truss and ECLSS/docking-node already populated with 50 tonnes of hardware.

    (But yes, BFR is essentially already a self-launched space-station, fuel-depot, & lunar lander.)

  • Paul451

    I am amazed that ULA is NOT working on ACES at this time.

    Primes don’t get out of bed unless someone is paying them.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    You paint a much more agreeable picture than $2.5 billion for a single BA-330; and a far better use of launch and transport resources.

    I wasn’t really suggesting using a BFS as a semi-permanent hab – not in cis-lunar space at least.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Because want NASA astronauts to have the experience of camping out like in the old Skylab days 🙂

  • ThomasLMatula

    But where you find the astronauts to put in it? NASA only has 44 active astronauts with another 36 or so in management positions. So even if you use them all the BFR will have a few seats left over…

  • windbourne

    Which is why it is time for NASA to change their approach.

  • duheagle

    You might be right, though the intent of this announcement is unclear in all sorts of ways. The timeline, for one thing, is completely unrealistic given ULA’s previous statements about the in-service date for ACES as you very correctly point out. So either ULA has suddenly decided to put the pedal to the metal on ACES or this proposal is hogwash.

    To the extent this proposal is pie-in-the-sky, it’s a bit surprising ULA didn’t also show the ACES that delivers the station sticking around afterward and joining up with the B330 as an initial propellant depot element with one of those conical sun shades ULA has previously shown as part of development concepts for ACES-based depots.

  • duheagle

    That would require a bigger payload fairing. As of the BFR announcement in Adelaide, I don’t see that happening. I’m pretty sure an FH, with its current upper stage, wouldn’t have the delta-V to get this station to lunar orbit anyway.

  • duheagle

    For long-term use as a space station I would think BFR would need Whipple shielding added. And B330’s have been suggested as components of interplanetary ships/cyclers too. So the line between spacecraft and stations is fuzzier than it might seem at first glance. As with most things, comparative economics will probably rule.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    It all comes down to that combination of cost per volume and design suitability for long term occupancy. Six to twelve months in a BFS might be fine, but you’re quite right, for multi-year use a purpose built hab is the preferred option.
    My worry regarding Bigelow habs (and the ULA/Bigelow plan) is cost. Will Bigelow be able to price their habs compellingly. If not that 8+ metre payload bay of the BFS might encourage a more competitive solution into the market. The ULA/Bigelow proposal talks about 3 Vulcan+ACES launches to position a BA-330 for a total of $2.3 billion. If we generously grant the launchers an average of $250 million for a total launch cost of $750 million, that implies a kitted out BA-330 to be somewhere in the ballpark of $1.5 Billion. That might be cheap volume by ISS standards, but Musk was talking about a 12m ITS ship at $200million (Booster:$230M, Tanker:$130M), and surely the 9 metre versions will cost no more than that. How about a carbon fibre “tube” (with inner hulls and perhaps with a water layer) with a 7ish metre interior diameter for $250 million or less. For me the BA-2100 and 3200 are the real promise of Bigelow expandables, but if they can’t keep their costs/greed in check, other solutions will be found, with BFS itself being the soonest to arrive.

  • Paul451

    for multi-year use a purpose built hab is the preferred option.

    The advantage of using BFS as a space station is that it wouldn’t be continuously in orbit. It would land, swap out crew, supplies, and experiments, then launch again. Instead of launching supplies to the station, bring the mountain to Mohamed.

    For long term experiments, you generally want a stable environment (more than the ISS), so someone innovative like Nanoracks might develop a smaller stand-alone unmanned module launches by BFS and left in orbit, the BFS-station docks only when necessary to tend the experiments; might be once a month, might be once a year, depending on the client.

    Likewise, you might leave a larger solar-array truss in orbit that the BFS can dock with. (No hab modules/ECLSS/etc, just power.) Saves deploying the undersized BFS arrays every time. (Experiments tend to drink power.) But still vastly less complex than a full human-occupied space-station.