A new space race is beginning, but this time between private companies, not nations. Businesses in the United States and Russia are vying to be the first to launch a private space station.
"We're just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg with commercial opportunities and pent-up demand," Mike Gold, Bigelow Aerospace's director of Washington, D.C. operations and business growth, told SPACE.com.
The other venture, led by two companies in Russia, is called the Commercial Space Station and aims to be a combination laboratory and hotel. Both the CSS and the Bigelow station are looking to launch in the next five years or so.
The Russian project has received support from the official Russian space program.
"We consider the Commercial Space Station a very interesting project, encouraging private participation," said Vitaly Davydov, deputy head of Russia's Federal Space Agency. "It will attract private investment for the Russian space industry."
To date, space stations have been a national or international affair. Russia achieved early success with its Salyut and Mir stations, and NASA brought the United States into the game first with Skylab in 1973.
The U.S. and Russia have since teamed up with 13 other countries to build the $100 billion International Space Station, which celebrated a decade of continuous manned operations this month.
But private space stations like those promised by Bigelow Aerospace and the Moscow-based Orbital Technologies, which is backing the Commercial Space Station, hold the promise of catering to a wider clientele – a customer base that includes scientists and governments, as well as materials manufactures and thrill-seeking space tourists.
An expandable station
The inflatable design developed by Bigelow Aerospace is based on discontinued research by NASA under the Transhab project on modules made with Kevlar-like composites that expand in space. These offer far more room than comparable modules on the International Space Station, while providing as much or more protection against radiation and impacts from debris, Bigelow officials said.
"When traditional metallic structures in space are struck by solar flares, they get a secondary radiation effect called scattering that can be deadly," Gold explained. "Our structures are nonmetallic, substantially reducing that problem and offering enhanced protection against radiation."
When it comes to impacts from micrometeoroids and the like, the Bigelow modules' skins can not only absorb and disperse the energy from strikes, but can retain their shape as well. "Expandable structures hold their integrity longer than physical structures, which can collapse," Gold said. "The additional volume our structures have buys additional time to fix them as well."
The first Bigelow station will consist of four components in low-Earth orbit. First is the Sundancer module, which has 6,356 cubic feet (180 cubic meters) of usable space and can support a crew of three. Next is a node-bus combination that adds docking capability, and then a second Sundancer. Last comes a BA330 module, which provides 11,653 cubic feet (330 cubic meters) of space and can hold up to six crewmembers.
"That's a crew capacity of 12, double that of the International Space Station," Gold said.
The BA330 boasts four large windows coated with a film that protects against ultraviolet rays, and contains an environment control and life-support system, including lavatory and hygiene facilities. The station will be powered by solar arrays and batteries, similar to the International Space Station.
The Bigelow station will be geared toward astronautics and commercial and scientific microgravity research, Gold said, not tourism.
"First and foremost, we are not a space hotel," he stressed in an interview.
Bigelow Aerospace already has six customers lined up, in the form of memoranda of understanding with space agencies and government departments in Australia, the Netherlands, Japan, Singapore, Sweden and the United Kingdom.
The cost for customers to use the station remains uncertain, "as that's largely driven by the issue of transportation there and back," Gold said. "Once we know what transportation vehicle we'll use and where we'll launch from, we'll have a better idea on costs."
Their station could launch by 2015 or so, Gold said, using United Launch Alliance's Atlas 5 rocket or SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket. They are partnered with Boeing to produce a crew capsule as part of NASA's Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) initiative.
"Customers and companies that have access to space will be the economic giants of the future. We hope it happens here, and hope that all of humanity can enjoy its benefits," Gold said.
Two Russian companies have also recently announced their intentions to build, launch and operate a private space habitat named the Commercial Space Station, or CSS.
"The most exciting possibilities include flights from the station to the moon or Mars," Sergey Kostenko, chief executive officer of Moscow-based Orbital Technologies, told SPACE.com.
Orbital Technologies said the station will have a crew of up to seven and will be serviced by Russian Soyuz and Progress spacecraft and potentially other commercially available vehicles. The station would consist of one module about 10 feet (3 meters) in diameter powered by solar arrays, with a usable volume of about 700 cubic feet (20 cubic meters), Kostenko said. The plan is to launch it in 2015 or 2016.
The company added that it already had several customers under contract from the commercial space industry and the scientific community interested in areas such as medical research, protein crystallization, and materials processing, as well as from the geographic imaging and remote-sensing industry. Media projects have also been proposed.
"The biggest goal may be tourism," Kostenko said.
The Commercial Space Station could also serve as an emergency refuge for the International Space Station's crew.
"If a required maintenance procedure or a real emergency were to occur, without the return of the ISS crew to Earth, habitants could use the CSS as a safe haven," said Alexey Krasnov, head of manned spaceflight at Russia's Federal Space Agency.
Orbital Technologies is collaborating with Rocket and Space Corporation Energia (RSC Energia) to develop the station.
"We are pleased to be the general contractor of this ambitious project," said RSC Energia's president Vitaly Alexandrovich Lopota. "For over a decade, RSC Energia's engineers have outlined and planned for the production of the CSS. Having 40 years of experience in building orbiting space platforms, RSC Energia has the technical resources and expertise; and is poised to build the CSS in a short period of time."