As you may have already heard, one of the major payloads aboard the CRS-8 Dragon mission is the Bigelow Expandable Activy Module (BEAM) — an inflatable habitat delivered in the Dragon’s unpressurized trunk section that will be berthed at the ISS and create its first new habitable volume since 2011’s delivery of the Leonardo Permanent Multipurpose Module aboard Endeavour. This is all that remains of the original TransHab concept, which was cancelled under the redefined “ISS Core Complete” program devised under the Bush administration. (The Bush administration had trimmed America’s ISS responsibilities in order to redirect effort to a lunar program. Alas, that did not pan out, as it required more funding than that, and Congress was not so cooperative.) Bigelow Aerospace salvaged the concept, purchasing the intellectual property and whatever hardware had been assembled from NASA, and launched two experimental inflatable spacecraft to test the engineering. But Bigelow has mostly been otherwise tight-lipped. The two experimental Genesis spacecraft remain in orbit today, and apart from signing a deal with Boeing to provide CST-100 Starliner flights to future inflatable space hotels, so far there has been little for the public to judge.
That’s all changing. With the arrival of BEAM at the ISS (although installation isn’t planned for a while), Bigelow Aerospace apparently feels confident enough to start talking some more about their other plans. They’ve spoken a bit about building inflatable space hotels, with a BEAM module servicing as airlock. Today those plans got a whole lot more concrete: they’ve purchased an Atlas V in its 552 configuration (which so far has never flown; the “2” means they’ll require a two-engine Centaur upper stage, which so far no payload has required) with five solid rocket motors. The new module will be called XBASE: eXpandable Bigelow Advanced Station Enhancement, and they’re saying it’ll launch in 2020. As befits their tight-lipped legacy, Bigelow Aerospace was a bit cagey as to the module’s destination — it could go to the ISS or it could be free-flying. Most likely, that decision is pending additional discussions with NASA, but clearly they intend to go ahead in any case, with or without NASA. For now, they have funding from NASA for a study contract to utilize one of their proposed B330 modules as XBASE; we’ll have to watch closely to see what comes of this.