The orbital balloon: NASA tests blow-up space-craft
A prototype inflatable module is to be tested aboard the International Space Station to give astronauts an extra bedroom, NASA has announced.
The inflatable module can be compressed into a 7ft tube for delivery, and is being heralded as a key component of future exploration and the development of commercial space travel and research.
It is designed by Bigelow Aerospace, based in Las Vegas, which has been awarded a $17.8 million (£11m) test project for the inflatable room – and hopes to develop space hotels and even planetary bases using the technology.
Bigelow Aerospace president Robert Bigelow, left, and NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver with a one third scale model of the inflatable room
Astronauts will test the ability of the bladder, known as the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM, to withstand heat, radiation, debris and other assaults.
Some adventurous scientists might also try sleeping in the spare room, which is the first piece of private property to be blasted into space, NASA said.
Lori Garver, NASA’s deputy administrator, said as she unveiled the contract award that the inflatable module concept is simultaneously cutting edge technology and affordable.
‘This partnership agreement for the use of expandable habitats represents a step forward in cutting-edge technology that can allow humans to thrive in space safely and affordably, and heralds important progress in U.S. commercial space innovation,’ she said.
‘The International Space Station is a unique laboratory that enables important discoveries that benefit humanity and vastly increase understanding of how humans can live and work in space for long periods.’
Part of NASA’s interest in the inflatable technology is prompted by its potential for deep space missions.
If the module proves durable during two years at the space station, it could open the door to habitats on the moon and missions to Mars, Nasa engineer Glen Miller said.
The agency chose Bigelow for the contract because it was the only company working on inflatable technology, said NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver.
An artist’s rendering of Bigelow Aerospace’s balloon-like module attached to the International Space Station
Founder and president Robert Bigelow, who made his fortune in the hotel industry before getting into the space business in 1999, framed the gambit as an out-of-this-world property venture.
He hopes to sell his spare-tire habitats to scientific companies and wealthy adventurers looking for space hotels.
NASA is expected to install the 13ft blimp-like module in a space station port by 2015.
Mr Bigelow plans to begin selling stand-alone space homes the next year.
The new technology provides three times as much room as the existing aluminium models, and is also easier and less costly to build, Mr Miller said.
Artist renderings of the module resemble a tin-foil clown nose grafted on to the main station. It is hardly big enough to be called a room.
Mr Miller described it as a large closet with padded white walls and gear and gizmos strung from two central beams.