I-Team: NASA, NLV Aerospace Co. to Explore Space Together - 8 News NOW

I-Team: NASA, NLV Aerospace Co. to Explore Space Together

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LAS VEGAS -- A North Las Vegas aerospace company is preparing to boldly go where few have gone before -- a public-private partnership with NASA that could be the start of the next space race.

Nevada's Bigelow Aerospace Co. made a joint announcement with NASA Thursday morning in Washington, D.C., that puts the North Las Vegas company in the pilot seat for the exploration and commercial development of the moon, Mars and beyond.

When the I-Team broke the news in late March that Bigelow Aerospace had signed an agreement with NASA to become, in essence, the general contractor for the commercial development of space, there was considerable skepticism within the national aerospace press corps, who figured it couldn't be true because they would have known about it.

Well, it is true, and on Thursday, NASA admitted as much. The agreement is as wide open as space itself and it puts Bigelow right in the middle of exciting scenarios worthy of Star Trek.

Company founder Bob Bigelow's longstanding interest in building a commercial base on the surface of the moon just took a giant leap forward. He built his aerospace company from scratch in just a little over a decade, and is now a full-fledged partner with NASA in exploring the final frontier.

The Space Act Agreement signed by NASA and Bigelow contains extraordinary and ambitious language about extending human civilization throughout the solar system -- a colony on Mars, for instance. As Bigelow has told the I-Team several times over the past 10 years that he wants to use a string of his homegrown, inflatable habitats as the building blocks of a permanent base on the moon.

I-Team: "You look at this, and realize, you're serious. This could happen in our lifetime."

Bigelow: "We've already had clients who have an interest in lunar activity ... If you had a facility, we would be interested in talking to you about it, on the lunar surface. There's no reason you could not have multiple bases."

Back in January, Bigelow and NASA announced that the space agency would spend $18 million on one of his inflatable spacecraft to serve as an addition to the International Space Station, but during the announcement, Bigelow let slip his plans for his own space station, which could be built and launched within three years at a fraction of the cost of NASA's version.

At the time, he was already negotiating with NASA for a much larger role in the next space race, and now, he has it. Bigelow Aerospace will be the central link between NASA and dozens of private companies that want to play a role in the creation of a new economy -- a space economy, including proposals far more complex than mere space tourism: research, manufacturing, medicine and agriculture.

The agreement calls for Bigelow to liaison between NASA and the private sector to see how government and industry could help each other.

At the Washington news conference, Bigelow said he would partner with companies like his that are willing to take financial risks rather than the usual fat government contracts. He emphasized that his eyes are on one main prize.

"The brass ring for us is having a lunar base," he said. "That is an appetite and a desire that we've had for a long, long time."

The head of NASA announced just weeks ago that the moon is off the table for NASA, that there will be no lunar missions in our lifetime. A NASA official explained Thursday that the government would focus on other priorities and leave the moon to private efforts.

"As far as the moon being off the plate, I think from the government's standpoint, right now we have more interest in the asteroid kind of missions," NASA associate administrator Bill Gerstenmaier said. "The mars' are an ultimate horizon, but what is interesting ...  this report implies that the private sector is very interested in lunar activity, so (we are) not focused silos and pieces but look at this as a holistic activity of where there is a private public partnership moving forward."

The partnership as outlined in the Bigelow agreement makes sense for both sides. NASA will get out of the way of private enterprise and help where it can, and the private companies would pay for research, development and engineering of future spacecraft and bases which NASA could then lease at a fraction of the cost of building its own.

"There's no good reason we can't do it in lunar orbit, then we land," Bigelow said. "The station becomes a base as soon as it touches down."

Phase one of the agreement signed with NASA at the end of March gives Bigelow's company 100 days to finish a report which identifies companies that want to be a part of this effort, as well as potential customers. Bigelow handed that finished report to NASA this morning, two months ahead of schedule.

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