The words “space hotel” probably elicit memories of science fiction films of times gone by, such as "2001: A Space Odyssey." But that fiction is one step closer to reality, thanks to a major new initiative by two private space companies in the U.S.
Bigelow Aerospace and the United Launch Alliance (ULA) have announced a proposal to launch a fully-fledged private space habitat as early as 2020. Called the B330, the module will have 330 cubic meters (12,000 cubic feet) of internal space, and would be used to “support zero-gravity research including scientific missions and manufacturing processes,” the ULA said in its statement.
They will use Bigelow’s existing inflatable module technology to either install the module as an additional room on the International Space Station (ISS), called the Expandable Bigelow Advanced Station Enhancement (XBASE), expanding its livable volume by 30 percent, or create an entirely new private space station.
But perhaps more excitingly, the statement goes on to add: “Beyond its industrial and scientific purposes, however, it has potential as a destination for space tourism and a craft for missions destined for the Moon and Mars.”
An artist's impression of the B330 module. Bigelow Aerospace
Bigelow’s inflatable modules are becoming somewhat of a hot commodity in spaceflight at the moment. Tests in 2006 and 2007 proved that the technology was workable, which basically involves launching a structure in a “folded up” shape and then expanding it in orbit by pumping it full of air. This greatly reduces the amount of space needed on a rocket launch.
Last week, SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft took the next stage of this technology – the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) – to the ISS, where it will be inflated at the end of May. But CEO Robert Bigelow has always had his eyes on something grander, described as a “Disney space station” at a press conference in Colorado this week. This partnership with the ULA could be a significant step towards that.
The dream is to eventually launch multiple B330s and connect them in orbit, creating a private space station that both companies and paying space tourists can visit. "Each [B330] is able to be its own space station," Bigelow said at the press conference. "They need no other habitats, modules or anything of the sort."
The plan for 2020 is to launch at least one B330 on an Atlas V rocket, although two B330s could be ready by then. But it’s clear this is just the start. With plenty of willing customers on Earth, this announcement suggests that the age of the space hotel might not be as far away as you think