FARNBOROUGH: Boeing, Bigelow to build space station by 2015

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Boeing and Bigelow Aerospace are teaming up to build a commercial space station system, with a 2015 target for a fully operational station in low Earth orbit (LEO), the companies announced on the first day of the show.

The aggressive schedule - with assembly in 2014 and testing to include an uncrewed trip to the station - is contingent upon the US Congress coming through with funding for NASA's proposed Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) Space Act Agreement programme this fall.

"We need the funding. The money that NASA has proposed closes the business case. Without that, we would have a difficult time," says Brewster Shaw, former astronaut and vice-president and general manager of Boeing's space exploration division.

bigelow model
 © Billypix

The plan, crafted largely by Robert Bigelow, the US hotelier turned aerospace company owner, is to build a modular 690m3 (24,000ft3) space station in LEO, starting a second, larger station within years for the first. The first will consist of four modules, four habitats and one propulsion and docking unit.

Bigelow says he is already expanding his factory outside Las Vegas by 17,000m2 (185,000ft2) to mass-produce the modules.

The programme would also include ground, mission and recovery operations systems as well as launch vehicles and a capsule based on the commercial crew transportation system already in development by Bigelow and Boeing as an offshoot of the CCDev programme. The capsule will be compatible with Atlas V, Delta IV and Falcon 9 launch systems, Shaw says.

Renting time on the first station would cost sovereign and commercial customers about $95m for a year, plus a per-astronaut cost of $24.9m, Bigelow says - a relative bargain compared with NASA's cost of $56m to send each astronauts to the International Space Station.

Bigelow also says he has already secured permission from the US State Department to run the project without any International Traffic in Arms Regulations concerns. "It's not a transfer of technology," Bigelow says, likening commercial space travel to commercial air travel.

"We believe space commerce will be a reality," Shaw says.

The Obama Administration, in a departure from previous US space policy, has proposed more emphasis on commercial space, with companies taking on major research and development and creating new launch capabilities, leaving NASA to focus on planetary exploration. Funding, however, has yet to materialise, with many in Congress concerned that the commercialisation of space is too dangerous an undertaking to support at this time.