Bigelow aerospace plans L1 and lunar facilities

Bigelow Aerospace is gearing up to launchits second prototype space station into orbit. The company has set its sights on something much, much bigger: a project to assemble full-blown space villages at L1 orbit and then drop them to the lunar surface, ready for immediate move-in.

The next test module, Genesis 2, is due for launch in April – with a larger prototype, known as Galaxy, tentatively scheduled for liftoff next year. Bigelow’s plan calls for launching the company’s first space “hotel” capable of accommodating guests (or researchers, for that matter) in 2010.

Getting all that right is “Job One,” Bigelow told me. But by 2012, the focus could start shifting from low Earth orbit, or LEO, farther out into space. One of the key places in Bigelow’s plan is a point about 200,000 miles (323,000 kilometers) out from Earth in the moon’s direction, where the pulls of terrestrial and lunar gravity balance each other.

Bigelow would turn that region of space, called L1, into a construction zone. Inflatable modules would be linked up with propulsion/power systems and support structures, and then the completed base would be lowered down to the moon’s surface, all in one piece.

Once the moon base has been set down, dirt would be piled on top, using a technique that Bigelow plans to start testing later this year at his Las Vegas headquarters. The moon dirt, more technically known as regolith, would serve to shield the base’s occupants from the harsh radiation hitting the lunar surface.