NASA Is Sending an Inflatable House to the International Space Station

The BEAM will be tested out on the International Space Station this spring.
The BEAM will be tested out on the International Space Station this spring.
Screengrab from NASA Youtube video

NASA is about to send a new prototype for an inflatable house into orbit. 

That may sound like something that Ray Bradbury dreamed up, but it's true. On Friday afternoon, SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft will take off on its eighth mission to tote the usual supplies for scientific experiments and daily living to the International Space Station, but the cargo will also include a prototype created by Bigelow Aerospace, an "expandable." 

The structure, known as the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (a.k.a. BEAM), will be attached to the Tranquility module on the ISS. It'll stay in orbit and remained attached to the ISS for two years during which this new type of habitat will be tested out by the astronauts to see if it does everything it needs to do. The hope is that when astronauts set out for Mars in the 2030s, they will be able to bring expandables with them and use the structures to add on to the living room as they travel through deep space and to shelter them once they actually arrive on the Red Planet.

With all of that in mind, the module has been designed as something like a very high-tech version of a bouncy castle, according to Wired. The BEAM prototype is  a 10.5-foot-by-13-foot capsule that is supposed to hold up against solar and cosmic radiation, space debris, atomic oxygen, ultraviolet radiation and all the other potential dangers that can be found in space. Once the habitat is set up on the ISS, astronauts will attach monitors to see how the craft actually holds up in space. 

An inflatable shelter may sound like a slightly nutty idea, but people have been working on blow-up versions of space habitats since at least the 1960s, according to NASA history. In 1961 Goodyear designed and actually made an inflatable space station. The donut-shaped craft was called the Erectable Torus Manned Space Laboratory, and it would have fulfilled a lot of the needs for an inflatable space habitat, since it could be loaded into a compact container and then expanded to its proper size after it was launched.

The Goodyear project in all its tire-shaped glory.
The Goodyear project in all its tire-shaped glory.
Photo from NASA

However, once Goodyear actually built the prototype, the researchers testing the habitat realized there was a flaw in the design. Since the structure was made of lightweight nylon cord and a sticky, rubber-like material, one good meteor shower would leave the craft pocked with holes. That conclusion marked the end of the Goodyear model.

In 1989 the Johnson Space Center's Man-Systems Division came up with the idea for another expandable. This would be a spherical lunar outpost that would be blown to its full size once the habitat reached the surface of the moon, but this time the concept was abandoned along with the idea of space exploration itself because it was thought to be too expensive. 

Still, NASA researchers kept working on designs for expandable habitats. In the 1990s they came up with the TransHab, which was intended to be an inflatable replacement for the ISS Habitation Module. However, in the middle of controversy over delays and cost increases for the entire ISS program, it was recommended in the late 1990s that NASA abandon its work on the TransHab. When NASA scientists continued working on the design of the craft, Congress stepped in and passed House Resolution 1654, a bill that banned NASA from doing any more research on or development of the TransHab module. That bill was signed into law in 2000. 

Meanwhile, motel mogul Robert Bigelow had spent most of his life fascinated by science (he witnessed the atomic tests conducted outside of Las Vegas as a kid) and decided at the age of 12 that his future would be in space travel. Despite that resolve, Bigelow actually made his money in real estate and founding the motel chain Budget Suites of America. He never lost sight of his dream, though. When he read about NASA being banned from any further work on TransHab, he immediately snapped up the project patent rights and went to work on testing out the ideas. By the mid-2000s, Bigelow Aerospace, the company he founded in 1999, had launched two expandables, the Genesis I and the Genesis II. 

When those craft had made it through the rigors of space, Bigelow started talking to NASA, signing a deal to develop BEAM for about $18 million, according to Wired.  And now the first expandable produced as a result of the agreement with NASA is about to be launched and tested. 

Company officials aren't saying what BEAM is made of, but it's known that the design has layers and insulation to protect it from the rocks and debris that are found in space. If the skin of the craft is punctured, it should leak but not pop like a balloon. If BEAM holds up under testing over the next two years, this could be the beginning of the era of inflatable houses that everyone from astronauts to the eventual space colonists and tourists will be using in their travels and on their adventures to explore strange new worlds and all the rest. 

So keep an eye on what happens to BEAM on Friday and from here on out. After decades of unsuccessful efforts, we may finally be looking at the future of space travel and non-Earth living.


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