Bigelow Aerospace LLC, a maker of inflatable space habitats, will study the possible return of men to the moon as part of an agreement with NASA that may lead to more public-private partnerships for exploration.
The company said it will identify options for government and private investments to advance human space exploration beyond low-Earth orbit, or more than 1,200 miles (1,900 kilometers) from Earth’s surface. Las Vegas-based Bigelow Aerospace won’t be paid for work that is scheduled to be completed this year.
A lunar base will be part of the study announced today by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, though the space agency isn’t planning to fund a moon mission. NASA instead intends to focus on landing humans on an asteroid by 2021.
The deal “signals that NASA is open to working with the private sector on lunar activities even if the agency itself does not want to lead such an effort,” Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, said in a phone interview.
Pace, a critic of the Obama administration’s focus on the asteroid program, said NASA should participate in an international mission to the moon to prepare for a possible manned exploration flight to Mars.
NASA plans to capture an asteroid with an unmanned spacecraft and re-direct it to a location near the moon. A crew would land on the space rock as early as 2021.
Robert Bigelow, who made his fortune in budget hotels and has bet $500 million on his space venture, said the asteroid mission is “a distraction to other more efficacious missions that NASA should focus on.”
Space technologies offered by companies such as Chicago-based Boeing Co., Dulles, Virginia-based Orbital Sciences Corp. and Hawthorne, California-based Space Exploration Technologies Corp. will be part of the study, Bigelow said.
While NASA focuses on asteroids, opportunities exist for the agency to collaborate with industry on lunar activities, William Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said during the press conference.
NASA could potentially share rides to the lunar region with commercial interests while it pursues other missions, Gerstenmaier said.