Space X photo

Future space hotel moguls can get nervous when NASA’s next-generation spaceship plans begin to founder. So one company has come up with a modified “Lite” design of the planned Orion vehicle to carry astronauts and paying passengers into orbit.

Bigelow Aerospace has long envisioned launching inflatable space station called Sundancer, and so improving passenger access to low Earth-orbit has remained a priority.

The company has already quietly briefed a White House-appointed panel on its suggested design. Space News reports that Bigelow has also received help from prime Orion contractor Lockheed Martin.

Bigelow’s modified Orion design would eliminate the propellant tanks and robust heat shields necessary for a moon mission, and instead only aim for low Earth-orbit. An unusual landing system would also involve midair retrieval after atmospheric reentry, rather than the typical ocean splashdown. NASA and the military have previously used such midair capture techniques with helicopters.

The weight savings of Orion Lite could allow launch of a human-rated Orion aboard an existing Atlas 5 rocket within three or four years, instead of NASA’s shaky original deadline of 2015.

One Bigelow officer even mentioned that the modified Orion could also launch aboard SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket.

PopSci previously took a grand tour of Bigelow’s orbital space modules that could someday house high-flying space tourists. But no word yet on whether future Orion passengers would get mints inside their space helmets.

[via Space News]