Inflatable Space Station for NASA?
NASA has been researching inflatable habitats since the 90s in order to help astronauts get to Mars without having to live in an extremely small space. Kriss Kennedy, a NASA space architect, was at the forefront of the project. The inflatables were to be made of Kevlar material that becomes rigid when put under pressure. Funding for this project ended in 2000.
Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM). Source: Bigelow Aerospace
However, Robert Bigelow, budget hotel billionaire, saw promise in the program and bought the rights to it from NASA. He then created Bigelow Aerospace to research and develop the inflatable habitats further. Today, they have successfully created the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM). On April 16, 2016 the module was successfully installed on the International Space Station (ISS).
BEAM was roughly six by six feet while uninflated. It was launched in the trunk of NASA’s Dragon spacecraft during the eighth resupply mission to the ISS. Once it reached its destination, the astronauts removed BEAM from the rocket and placed it in the Tranquility node of the ISS using the station’s robotic arm. The astronauts are planning to inflate the habitat to roughly ten and a half by twelve feet sometime in late May.
BEAM is simply a prototype when it comes to inflatable technology, and it will be monitored for how well it does in space. The astronauts will periodically check pressure, radiation, temperature, and how well it stands up to debris and micrometeorites. BEAM will be tested for two years, and then it will be unattached and allowed to burn up in the earth’s atmosphere.
To learn more about BEAM, click here.
BEAM interior view. Source: Bigelow Aerospace
Bigelow Aerospace and the United Launch Alliance have also teamed up in order to launch a much larger module on an Atlas V rocket in 2020. This habitat will be modeled after Bigelow Aerospace’s B330 module. The name of the module is the Expandable Bigelow Advanced Station Enhancement (XBASE). The teams have yet to decide if the module will orbit earth freely or if it will also be attached to the ISS.
Robert Bigelow is talking with NASA to see if it will be possible to attach the XBASE to the ISS. ISS is currently commissioned through 2024 so it is unclear how much testing of XBASE is feasible with the ISS.
To learn more about B330, click here.
Bigelow Aerospace is also focusing on the development of inflatable habitats for future missions, such as going to Mars. Besides working as labs and habitats for astronauts, the modules could also be used for space hotels. NASA currently has commercial crew providers, Boeing and SpaceX, whose capsules are only a few years from having their first crewed flights. This could mean the change of the hotel industry as well as space exploration and research.
To learn more about the future of space exploration, click here.
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By Bethanny Jones