ULA to partner with Bigelow on commercial space habitats

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (Reuters) - United Launch Alliance will team with billionaire entrepreneur Robert Bigelow to market and fly habitats for humans in space, a project that hinges on space taxis being developed by SpaceX, Boeing Co and other firms, ULA and Bigelow said on Monday.

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The agreement, announced at a news conference at the U.S. Space Symposium in Colorado Spring, Colorado, includes a 2020 launch of a 12,000-cubic foot (330-cubic meter) inflatable habitat aboard a ULA Atlas 5 rocket, currently the only vehicle with a big enough payload container to hold the module.

Bigelow told the news conference that partnering with ULA, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin Corp and Boeing, is “a potentially enormously important relationship,” to open space to non-government research, commercial endeavors and tourism.

ULA and Bigelow did not give details on their alliance. ULA President and Chief Executive Tory Bruno said at the news conference that ULA is contributing “resources of technology and talent. We don’t talk about dollars and investment. You’ll see as time goes by what this fully encompasses.”

Bigelow has designed inflatable space habitats made of a Kevlar-like material and other fabrics that protect against impacts from orbiting debris. They are folded for launch, then inflated with air once aloft. The light, compact habitats should save millions of dollars in launch costs, the companies say.

Bigelow Aerospace has been working on inflatable habitats for 15 years.

A miniature version of the expandable, fabric module arrived at the International Space Station on Sunday aboard a SpaceX Dragon cargo ship. The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM, is expected to be attached to a station docking port on Saturday and inflated next month for a two-year trial run.

BEAM is the firm’s first manned spacecraft. Bigelow had previously launched two unmanned prototypes in 2006 and 2007.

Bigelow plans to follow BEAM with modules that are 20 times larger to serve as space outposts that will be leased to companies and research organizations. Bigelow said he also would like to attach one of the modules, known as B330, to the space station for use by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and commercial customers.

The projects are dependent on commercial space transportation services, such as those under development by SpaceX and Boeing, to fly astronauts to and from the space station for NASA.

Reporting By Irene Klotz. Editing by Joe White