Recently NASA has awarded a contract to explore ways to potentially expand the International Space Station. The company that received the contract, Bigelow Aerospace, will have access to $17.8 million to create an inflatable extension for the space station. According to NASA, the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module “will demonstrate the benefits of this space habitat technology for future exploration and commercial space endeavors.” NASA hopes that this new inflatable technology can help get astronauts reach distances they never have before.
You may not have known, but inflatable space technology is nothing new. The first passive communication satellites, Echo 1 and Echo 2, were both inflatable. This technology came about when NASA determined that satellite would be too big to fit into the Thor-Delta rocket in 1958. To alleviate this problem, NASA decided to have the satellites inflate when they reached space.
The idea of a self-contained inflatable habitat for space exploration has been around for decades. It has been budget constraints that have help NASA from putting the idea into action. In 2000, NASA had to cancel its “Transit Habitat” plan that would get astronaut crews to Mars using the inflatable technology due to budget issues.
The Bigelow Aerospace company has been working independently on inflatable habitats for many years. Currently, Bigelow offers a BA 330 inflatable habitat that can be both added on to an existing station or operate on its own. The BA 330 has 330 cubed meters of volume and can support a crew of up to six people for an extended period of time. According to Bigelow, the BA 330’s radiation protection can at least match that of the International Space Station. The inflatable habitat’s “aluminum can” design features four large windows the crew can use to look out into space.
There is no confirmation on whether or not Bigelow Aerospace’s BA 330 or another inflatable habitat has been commissioned by NASA. However, NASA plans to hold a press even soon with Bigelow to discuss their plans for the inflatable project.