Balloon-like dwelling to be tested on Int'l Space Station

NASA

A low-cost space dwelling that inflates like a balloon in orbit will be tested aboard the International Space Station, opening the door for commercial leases of future free-flying outposts and deep-space astronaut habitats for NASA.

The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, nicknamed BEAM, will be the third orbital prototype developed and flown by privately owned Bigelow Aerospace.

The Las Vegas-based company, founded in 1999 by Budget Suites of America hotel chain owner Robert Bigelow, currently operates two small unmanned experimental habitats called Genesis 1, which was launched in 2006, and Genesis 2, which followed a year later.

BEAM, which measures about 13 feet long and 10.5 feet in diameter (4 meters by 3.2 meters) when inflated, is scheduled for launch in mid-2015 aboard a Space Exploration Technologies' Dragon cargo ship, said Mike Gold, director of operations for Bigelow Aerospace.

"It will be the first expandable habitat module ever constructed for human occupancy," Gold said.

A successful test flight on the space station would be a stepping stone for planned Bigelow-staffed orbiting outposts that the company plans to lease to research organizations, businesses and wealthy individuals wishing to vacation in orbit.

Bigelow has preliminary agreements with seven non-U.S. space and research agencies, in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Australia, Singapore, Japan, Sweden and the United Arab Emirate of Dubai.

NASA, which will pay Bigelow Aerospace $17.8 million for the BEAM habitat, also is interested in the technology to house crew during future expeditions beyond the space station, a $100 billion research complex that flies about 250 miles (400 km) above Earth.

"Whether you're going to the surface of the moon or even Mars, the benefits of expandable habitats are critical for any exploration mission," Gold said.

The lightweight, soft-skinned inflatable, made of materials similar to Kevlar, has several advantages over traditional metallic space dwellings. BEAM, for example, weighs about 3,000 pounds (1,361 kg), less than a third of traditional, similarly sized space modules, so it can be launched for a fraction of the cost.

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