Bigelow Aerospace has made no secret of its desire to get into the space station business and now, along with United Launch Alliance (ULA), it's planning to go to the Moon. In a joint statement, the partners have announced they will launch a Bigelow B330 expandable module atop a ULA Vulcan launch vehicle with the aim of sending it into Low Lunar Orbit (LLO) and turning it into a lunar depot by the end of 2022.

Bigelow has long described the B330 inflatable habitat module as versatile. The company has touted it as an economical way to expand the International Space Station (ISS) as well as setting up laboratories and even hotels in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), but plans to set up an outpost in orbit around the Moon puts the company's ambitions into another league.

The B330 is a more advanced version of the BEAM inflatable module currently attached to the ISS, and consists of a "soft goods" inflatable habitat module with a multilayer design that Bigelow says provides better protection against debris and radiation than the aluminum hull of the space station modules.

When inflated, the B330 expands to three times its original size, providing 330 m³ (11,654 ft³) of space, which is large enough to house six astronauts. Three B330s would have as much volume as the entire ISS. However, the 16.88-meter-long ((55. 41 ft) B330 isn't just a giant balloon. It has a complete life support system and reaction motors, making it completely independent from other spacecraft.

In the aft section there is a docking system and in the forward section is a solid-hulled multifunction airlock that acts a docking module, an EVA egress port, and an emergency refuge in the event of the habitat getting a puncture. There's also a solar power system and radiators to regulate the outpost's temperature.

The idea is to first place a B330 into LEO using a Vulcan 562 configuration rocket, where it would be inflated and made fully operational. A series of astronaut crews would then go on board to give it a thorough shakedown. Once certified as fit for lunar duty, the Vulcan booster would be used to loft two or more Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage (ACES) rockets into space, each of which can carry as much as 35 tons of cryogenic propellant into orbit.

Once in orbit, The fuel from the other ACES rockets would act as propellant tankers to top up the last one, which would dock with the B330 and power it into a lunar transfer orbit. Once in LLO, astronauts would rendezvous to use it as a base for lunar missions and beyond.

"We are excited to work with ULA on this lunar depot project," says Robert Bigelow, president of Bigelow Aerospace. "Our lunar depot plan is a strong complement to other plans intended to eventually put people on Mars. It will provide NASA and America with an exciting and financially practical success opportunity that can be accomplished in the short term. This lunar depot could be deployed easily by 2022 to support the nation's re-energized plans for returning to the Moon.

"This commercial lunar depot would provide anchorage for significant lunar business development in addition to offering NASA and other governments the Moon as a new exciting location to conduct long-term exploration and astronaut training."

Two B330 habitats are currently under construction. According to Bigelow, they will be ready for launch after 2020.

View gallery - 4 images