NASA Space Flight is reporting that a meeting took place at the Johnson Spaceflight Center to discuss the possibility of attaching a Bigelow inflatable module to the International Space Station.
The inflatable module would serve as a storage room for scientific equipment used in the Japanese Laboratory Module. NASA would provide funding, as well as equipment such as "--the Passive Common Berthing Mechanism (PCBM), Flight Releasable Grapple Fixture (FRGF), smoke detector, fan, and emergency lights." Bigelow would provide the inflatable and inner core structure.
Berthing the inflatable module at the ISS would require the addition of the currently unfunded Node 4 and the unfunded Advanced Rendezvous and Docking Vehicle. The module would be launched on an EELV, either a Delta IV or Atlas V.
If the Bigelow inflatable module is funded and deployed, it would constitute a curious full circle for NASA. NASA has originally studied using inflatable modules for the International Space Station under the Transhab program in the mid to late 1990s. The program was canceled, but Bigelow Aerospace bought the license for the technology, greatly refined it, and is now in the process of building its own private space station using inflatable modules, scheduled for sometime in the middle of this decade. Bigelow has successfully launched and deployed to inflatable prototypes.
Using a Bigelow inflatable module would be another example of the marrying of commercially developed technology to an important NASA project, much in the same way that NASA is promoting the development of commercial launch vehicles to resupply ISS. The difference is that Bigelow has developed its inflatable module technology under its own funding and will not need government subsidies to provide the product NASA is requesting.
If the funding is made available for the addition of a Bigelow module, the scheme promises to be a win/win situation for both NASA and Bigelow.
"Both NASA and Bigelow stand to gain from putting an inflatable module on the ISS. Given the fact that inflatable modules could play a major role in any future NASA interplanetary spacecraft or surface base, NASA could gain valuable in-flight data from an inflatable module on ISS, as well as much-needed stowage space.
"Bigelow would gain confidence in, and operational experience with, its inflatable modules in a crewed environment, confidence which would undoubtedly also be gained by any potential future customers to Bigelow. Given that the ISS is a permanently crewed operational environment, it is an ideal testbed to demonstrate these technologies."
This is very important as debates continue over how NASA is going to send astronaut/explorers beyond Low Earth Orbit. NASA plans envision commercial partnerships of various kinds. Bigelow, for instance, has suggested that with funding it could provide a ready-made lunar base with its inflatable modules ready to be occupied by people returning to the Moon. Such an arrangement would greatly enhance any program of lunar exploration and eventual settlement.
The question arises, of course, will the funding be made available? Considering the chaos that has descended upon NASA in the wake of the cancellation of the Constellation program and uncertainties about budgets, that is something that begs for an answer.