Space station builder Bigelow forms new company to help sell space habitats to the masses

Key Points
  • Bigelow Aerospace is creating a separate operations company in a ramp-up of private space station development.
  • The first step for Bigelow Space Operations will be investing "millions of dollars" to learn the global space market need, CEO Robert Bigelow says.
  • The company's next launch in 2021 will be two stand-alone habitable modules which Bigelow says are in the final stages of fabrication.
Robert Bigelow, founder of Bigelow Aerospace standing near a model of BEAM capsule.
Jodi Gralnick | CNBC

Bigelow Aerospace announced Tuesday the creation of Bigelow Space Operations (BSO), the next step in the company's effort to build the world's first habitable private space station.

The new company is required as Bigelow Aerospace is "seguing into becoming a production company" after existing as "a laboratory for 17 years," CEO Robert Bigelow said on a conference call with reporters. "Bigelow Aerospace doesn't sell anything, and has no plans to."

BSO will act as the marketing, customer service and — when the company's space stations are launched — operations center for Bigelow's products.

"We will spend millions of dollars this year to drill down on a conclusion as to what the global space market is going to look like," Bigelow said. "When we look at what is the commercial picture, as far as humans' use of space today, it's a whole lot different than it was 10 years ago."

Thus far BSO has brought on a handful of staff, including a chief operating officer as well as sales and contracts officers. Bigelow said the company plans to hire "another three to four dozen employees" in the coming weeks. Eventually, once stations are operational, Bigelow says he expects BSO's staff to expand to "between 400 and 500."

Bigelow Aerospace already has its habitable test module BEAM docked with the International Space Station. It arrived in April 2016 for a two-year mission to test the durability of the module. The modules built by Bigelow expand once they are deployed in orbit.

Next up are Bigelow's B330 line of stations, advertised as "fully autonomous standalone space stations." Two are currently being built, B330-1 and B330-2, and Bigelow says both are "very far along in fabrication."

"They will be ready for launch in 2021," Bigelow said.

After that is the Olympus model, which Bigelow says is eight to 10 years away. Olympus would be nearly 2½ times the habitable volume of the ISS, and would require a rocket capable of lifting 75 tons to 80 tons of payload. Bigelow Aerospace has existing contracts with ULA and SpaceX, but Bigelow did not offer new details as to which rockets will carry the coming station modules.

"There are several different categories [of rocket] in play now so we do not rely on SLS," Bigelow said, referring to the Space Launch System currently being built.

In a news release regarding the creation of BSO, the company said it will need to build a new manufacturing plant "in Florida, Alabama or [another] suitable location." When asked about the new facilities, Bigelow offered no further guidance or clarification.

Last week Bigelow said he "applauds" the Trump administration's "focus on commercial partnerships for low-Earth orbit" after it announced plans on Feb. 12 to end NASA's funding of the International Space Station in 2025 and begin a new $150 million program to build commercial platforms in orbit. Bigelow repeated his call Tuesday for the administration to work further with NASA on how commercial ventures will have access to contracts from companies and countries to develop a low-Earth orbit ecosystem.

"It's one thing I call upon the Trump administration to become involved in," Bigelow said. He added that Bigelow Aerospace has yet to have any conversations with the White House about competing with NASA, while emphasizing his company is open to discussion.

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