Part of the emerging architecture for a return to the moon is a Deep Space Station that would be deployed in cis-lunar space. The idea is that astronauts would ride to the DPS or, as some call it, the Deep Space Gateway in an Orion spacecraft. Then they will ride a reusable lunar lander the rest of the way to the moon’s surface. The DPS would eventually serve as a refueling depot with rocket propellant refined by lunar water brought up from the surface to be used to top off spacecraft headed for destinations such as Mars.

Bigelow Aerospace, in the spirit of not waiting for NASA to sort things out, proposes to deploy just such a Deep Space Station, which the company refers to as a lunar depot, by 2022 in low lunar orbit.

Bigelow has partnered with United Launch Alliance to get the station put into place,

A ULA Vulcan delivers a Bigelow B330 into orbit

Bigelow proposes that an inflatable B330 be launched into low Earth orbit by a ULA Vulcan launch vehicle. The B330 provides 330 cubic meters of volume, life support, fuel storage, power system, two docking ports, and an EVA airlock. The inflatable space station can accommodate up to six astronauts.

The Vulcan is United Launch Alliance’s planned next-generation launch vehicle and is the company’s answer to the SpaceX Falcon Heavy and the Blue Origin New Glenn. The launch vehicle will initially use a Centaur upper stage when it first launches in 2019 but will eventually change to an Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage (ACES), which will double as a space tug when it is refueled.

Taking the B330 to lunar orbit

The plan is to deployed and inflate the B330 in low Earth orbit. Then Bigelow will outfit the inflatable space station and test its systems. Once that task is done, the B330 would be blasted into low lunar orbit using an attached ACES rocket in a series of maneuvers. Thus, NASA and any other customer government or private that cares to use it will be presented with a ready-made lunar depot at what must be assumed to be at reasonable rates.

Reality check

Getting the lunar depot ready and deployed by 2022 would undoubtedly be adhering to an aggressive schedule. ULA suggests that the ACES may not be available until the “mid-2020s” which would undoubtedly push the deployment of the lunar depot out to the mid to late 2020s. However, if the deployment schedule slips to the right, the Bigelow-ULA partnership will not be the first for that to happen.