I-Team: NASA team to decide if Nevada spacecraft will take humans to Mars

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LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — Four dozen engineers and space scientists from NASA are in Southern Nevada this week to check out some technology that could take us back to the moon, and maybe to Mars.

The project is called Gateway. NASA wants to have an orbital station above the moon by 2024, and one of the four companies being considered for that station is Bigelow Aerospace in North Las Vegas.

The I-Team got an exclusive look at the spacecraft being examined by the NASA team. Sounds odd to say this but one of the biggest problems with space is that there isn’t enough space up there — space to live and work, that is.

It took close to 45 launches to assemble all of the pieces that make up the International Space Station, at a cost of tens of billions of dollars. What if you could create a larger, safer habitat around the moon with only one or two launches? Checking out an expandable spacecraft is one reason such a large team from NASA is in the Las Vegas valley right now.

“One of the things that all of the astronauts that have ever come into this habitat have said to us is that they’re blown away by the actual space. I mean, this is like a very large apartment,” said Dr. Colm Kelleher, Bigelow Aerospace scientist.

Dr. Colm Kelleher is the scientist in charge of developing life support systems for the BA 330, the spacecraft being examined and tested this week  by dozens of NASA engineers to figure out if it will be chosen for project Gateway, NASA’s plan to return humans to the moon in this decade. Once launched into space, tanks of compressed air allow the 330 to expand, providing a future crew with more room to live and work. This craft could work as an orbital station above the moon, or as habitats on the lunar surface.

BA 330 inflatable habitat for space. Built at Bigelow Aerospace in North Las Vegas. (KLAS-TV)

“This is a stand-alone spacecraft. It doesn’t really depend on anything else. and it can orbit the moon, or it can be in LEO (low Earth orbit) or it could actually be used on the way to Mars. It’s tremendously versatile,” Kelleher said.

NASA teams have already checked out systems built by three competitors large aerospace giants. Bigelow Aerospace is the final candidate to be inspected. The feedback — so far — has been positive.

“So far, the NASA teams have been very excited and enthusiastic about the chance to be inside the 300,” said Blair Bigelow, Bigelow Aerospace spokesperson.

Blair Bigelow stands in front of the Olympus at Bigelow Aerospace in North Las Vegas. (KLAS-TV)

Blair Bigelow, the granddaughter of the company’s founder, stands in front of a future project, the Olympus, an even bigger version of the same expandable technology. The company launched two smaller craft into orbit more than a decade ago. A third version is currently attached to the International Space Station and has exceeded performance expectations.  Unlike its competitors, the company developed these craft on its own dime, not federal dollars.

“It’s pretty exciting, and it’s because we have about 50 people from NASA here all this week,” said Robert Bigelow, Bigelow Aerospace president.

Robert Bigelow, president of Bigelow Aerospace, talks with 8 News Now reporter George Knapp. (KLAS-TV)

At a conference table inside the Olympus, Bigelow, known for playing his cards close to the vest, says NASA has nudged him to be more open about his work.

“We’re being pushed to be more overt and show pictures of what we do, and not be so secretive. So, we’re trying to come out of the box,” Bigelow said.

Bigelow’s penchant for secrecy stems, in part, from the very real threat of industrial espionage. Elsewhere in the plant, a working version of his latest spacecraft is under construction, but we can only show the mannequin astronauts hovering around it because the technology inside is new and proprietary. Even though he is competing against aerospace behemoths, Bigelow is confident that his expandable technology can prevail because, he says, it is safer, cheaper, and far more versatile than anything else.

“So, it not only has a tremendous bandwidth of different uses in low Earth orbit, about 25 different kind of uses, like maybe a dormitory. One would be for growing food, about 25 different kinds of uses. And then it definitely can be a lunar depot, he said.”

The version being tested by NASA is larger than it looks. In space, the floor levels would not exist but it has work stations where lunar rovers could be controlled, where moon rocks or soil samples could be examined, crew quarters, sick bay, and twice as many toilets as any rival. If it works for project Gateway, it could also work for a mission to Mars.

“The original purpose for building a Mars trans-habitat. That’s why this technology exists,” Blair Bigelow said. “That was how it was originally conceived. And that’s still something we still believe in very much today.

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