NASA Proposes License Grant for Bigelow Technology

NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver is given a tour of the Bigelow Aerospace facilities by the company's President Robert Bigelow on Friday, Feb. 4, 2011, in Las Vegas. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

NASA has recommended that Bigelow Aerospace be granted a license to market some of its patented inflatable space habitat technology, according to a notice published in the Federal Registrar.

NASA hereby gives notice of its intent to grant a partially exclusive license in the United States to practice the invention described and claimed in United States Patent 7,509,774 (issued March 31, 2009) and NASA Case No. MSC 24201-1, entitled “Apparatus For Integrating A Rigid Structure Into A Flexible Wall Of An Inflatable Structure” to Bigelow Aerospace, having its principal place of business in North Las Vegas, Nevada.

The fields of use may be limited to expandable spacecraft, vehicles, modules, and the like for operation in exoatmospheric space, including applications, sales, lease, and other commercial uses or applications thereof for research and development, space tourism, and other commercial endeavors.

The technology apparently allows Bigelow to connect floors and other structures to the inflatable elements of its space habitats. Bigelow’s patent contains this brief summary of the invention:

For an inflatable structure having a flexible wall structure, a rigid member adapted to be integrated into the flexible wall structure, the flexible wall structure having a restraint layer comprising flexible, load-bearing straps. The rigid member has a plurality of connecting means for receiving end portions of respective ones of the load-bearing straps, the connecting means being configured and arrayed to connect the straps to the rigid member such that tensional loads on the straps are distributed between the straps and such that adjacent straps are attached to portions of the rigid member in mutually parallel and substantially contiguous alignment. In one embodiment, the rigid member is a panel structure having a curvature corresponding to that of the flexible wall structure of an inflatable module when the module is in an inflated, deployed mode. In one embodiment, the panel structure is a frame having an opening receiving a window. In one embodiment, a plurality of connecting means are mounted on at least one peripheral edge portion of the rigid panel, the connecting means comprising a plurality of outer connecting mechanisms and a plurality of inner connecting mechanisms, the respective outer connecting mechanisms being spaced along the panel peripheral edge portion between adjacent pairs of inner connecting mechanisms whereby alternate connecting mechanisms comprise outer connecting mechanism, the outer mechanisms projecting outwardly from the panel structure edge portion beyond adjacent inner connecting mechanisms to form a staggered array of connecting mechanisms along the panel structure edge portion.

So, what is a partially exclusive license? It seems to apply to products where the original technology was developed by the government. NASA developed inflatable modules as part of its TransHab project. Bigelow licensed the technology after the space agency decided not to continue work on it.

A description of partially exclusive licenses that I found on the Commerce Department website indicates that the government retains certain rights:

(i) The license shall be subject to the irrevocable, royalty-free right of the Government of the United States to practice and have practiced the invention on behalf of the United States and on behalf of any foreign government or international organization pursuant to any existing or future treaty or agreement with the United States.

Bigelow is planning to launch inflatable space stations beginning in 2015 and has plans for lunar habitats. The Las Vegas company is in talks with NASA about attaching an inflatable module to the International Space Station.