Suits in space? A North Las Vegas company is working with NASA to recruit executives for space missions

Julie Jacobson / Associated Press

NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver, left, and Bigelow Aerospace President Robert Bigelow pause for photos and video in front of the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module during a news conference Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013, in Las Vegas. NASA awarded a contact to Bigelow Aerospace to provide NASA with the BEAM, a habitat module for the International Space Station.

Just months after reaching a deal with NASA to build an inflatable space room, local entrepreneur Robert Bigelow is working with agency officials to find ways for business executives to take part in human space missions.

His company, Bigelow Aerospace, signed a deal with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration last month to explore how the private sector can contribute to missions beyond the area known as “Low Earth Orbit,” about 1,200 miles above sea level.

That could include missions to the moon, which is about 240,000 miles away, and Mars, which is at least 33.9 million miles from Earth.

The deal with Bigelow, based in North Las Vegas, is the first of its kind for NASA. The entities will work together to determine which companies can contribute to such missions, what expertise they would bring to the table and what types of missions they could work on, said Mike Gold, Bigelow’s director of Washington, D.C., operations and business growth.

No money will change hands between Bigelow and NASA. The study is expected to be completed this fall.

What kinds of projects might be pursued?

The private sector potentially could get involved with attempts to extract helium-3 from the moon, Gold said. The gas, which is scarce on Earth but believed to be in abundance on the moon, is viewed as a possible source of cheap, clean energy.

NASA spokesman David Weaver said the agency is “intensely focused on a bold mission to identify, relocate and explore an asteroid with American astronauts by 2025" and an even more ambitious human mission to Mars in the 2030s. NASA has no plans for a human mission to the moon, he said.

Bigelow Aerospace, founded in 1999, develops expandable space-habitat technology. The company launched two prototype modules into space in 2006 and 2007 aboard converted Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles. The spacecraft remain in orbit, traveling at about 16,930 mph, orbiting Earth once every 96 minutes.

NASA officials announced in January that the agency awarded Bigelow a $17.8 million contract to provide a Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM, to the International Space Station. The BEAM is an inflatable room that can be compressed into a 7-foot tube.

If it proves durable, it could help lead to space stations on the moon and missions to Mars.

The 10-foot-diameter, blimp-like module is expected to arrive at the orbiting laboratory in 2015 for a two-year test period. It is slated to launch during a NASA-contracted SpaceX cargo resupply mission.

If the test is successful, Bigelow plans to begin selling the inflatable space stations to other countries in 2016.

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