NASA and Bigelow Aerospace to announce plans for inflatable station modules
Sentinel exclusive: inflatable station module? $18M room with a view
WASHINGTON — NASA is expected to announce today the terms of a landmark deal that will allow Bigelow Aerospace, a private company based in North Las Vegas, to attach one of its inflatable habitats to the International Space Station.
The deal gives the company, founded by hotelier Robert Bigelow, the opportunity to test a new type of space dwelling — essentially a balloon made of Kevlar-like material that is inflated once it reaches orbit — that would stay attached to the station for at least two years.
Under the agreement, NASA would pay Bigelow Aerospace nearly $18 million for the module, which is about the size of a large bedroom. It would be used to increase the amount of living space aboard the station, which itself is about as big as a football field.
A rocket built by SpaceX, another commercial company under contract with NASA, would blast the module to the station from Cape Canaveral as soon as mid-2015. Bigelow would become the first private company to have one of its modules purchased by NASA and added to the $100 billion, government-run observatory.
“This partnership … 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,” NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver said in a statement.
How station astronauts will use the Bigelow module still is under discussion. NASA officials said the prime goal is to see how the technology works.
Unlike other, rigid parts of the station, the module is comparable to a live-in balloon. It would be launched, uninflated, to the station, attached to an air lock with help from one of the station’s robotic arms and then blown up with pressurized air.
The module’s major benefit is that it is lightweight — only about 3,000 pounds — and thus far cheaper to launch than a rigid module that can weigh 10,000 pounds or more.
Though the material would appear vulnerable to hits from space debris, Bigelow officials said the module is equipped with a shield that hypervelocity tests have shown is “superior” to the aluminum walls of the station. The softer, Kevlar-like material also reduces the effect of “secondary radiation,” according to the company.
If the Bigelow module proves effective, then it could be considered for other, long-range missions, NASA officials said.