Privately owned space stations may be closer than you think
Although NASA may be focusing on unmanned vehicles at the moment, that doesn’t mean the exploration and even possible colonization of space has ground to a halt. Far from it, it’s just gone toward the private sector. Within the next year, a privately funded habitat will launch and dock with the International Space Station to test out the expandable-habitat technology, according to Space.com. Assuming it pans out, it could be a major step toward privately owned space stations.
The habitat was designed and is being built by Bigelow Aerospace, a privately owned company based out of Nevada, and will launch in 2015 inside SpaceX’s Dragon cargo spacecraft. Once in space the habitat, known as the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), will then inflate and dock with the ISS’s aft port. There it will remain for at least two years for testing.
The BEAM was contracted by NASA, who are paying $17.8 million to Bigelow to launch the module. The test is primarily meant to show what private firms can do in low-Earth orbit (LEO).
“LEO will become a commercial domain,” Mike Gold, Bigelow’s director of DC operations and business growth told the International Astronautical Congress.
Gold went on to compare the current state of LEO to that of the telecommunications industry several years ago. When the first communications satellites launched, they were exclusively the domain of the federal government. Now, they are the responsibility of private companies.
According to Gold, the primary issue holding back the commercialization of space – not counting the actual technological difficulties – is the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), which restrict the sharing of advanced technologies with other nations. Those regulations, Gold argues, hinder potential development, and he specifically noted the potential that working with China could bring. He, and representatives from other companies, are urging change.
“We cannot fight the New Space vs. Old Space battle … with so few companies,” Gold said. “The pie is too small. We need to come together as space enthusiasts.”
NASA agrees with Gold, and has for years now encouraged commercial operations – like Elon Musk’s SpaceX – to develop their own space technology. The space agency is currently working on a list of voluntary international standards for things, like a uniform radio frequency, to avoid interference.
As for the BEAM itself, beyond the general tests including how it holds up in space, NASA will pay close attention to the radiation levels inside the module. Assuming the tests are positive, it could pave the way for commercially controlled LEO stations. Bigelow itself is hoping to be among the first to launch a private space station – although as regulations are relaxed, it could find itself in a new, commercially driven space race.