NASA is partnering with a commercial space company in a bid to replace the cumbersome metal cans that serve as astronauts' homes in space with inflatable bounce-house-like habitats that can be deployed on the cheap.
A $17.8 million U.S. test project will send an inflatable room that can be compressed for delivery into a 2-metre tube to the International Space Station, officials said Wednesday during a news conference at Las Vegas-based company Bigelow Aerospace.
If the module proves durable during two years at the space station, it could help lead to habitats on the moon and missions to Mars, NASA engineer Glen Miller said.
The agency chose Bigelow for the contract because it was the only company working on the inflatable technology, said NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver.
2015 installation at space station
Founder and president Robert Bigelow, who made his fortune in the hotel industry and framed the space station gambit as an out-of-this-world real estate venture, also hopes to sell his spare tire habitats to scientific companies and wealthy adventurers looking for space hotels.
NASA is expected to install the 3-metre-diameter, blimp-like module by 2015 at the space station. In 2016, Bigelow plans to begin selling inflatable space stations to countries looking to increase their presence in space.
Miller says the new technology provides more room than existing options, and is quicker and cheaper to build.
'It's actually stronger than the metal cans that are now up there' —Robert Bigelow, Bigelow Aerospace
Once inflated, the habitat will be safer than the aluminum modules now in orbit, he said.
Artist renderings of the module resemble a large tinfoil clown nose stuck onto the main station. It is hardly large enough to be called a room. Miller described it as a large closet with padded white walls and gear and gizmos strung from two central beams.
NASA no longer enjoys the budget and public profile of its heyday. The agency outsourced rocket-building to private companies, retired it space shuttles in 2011 and now relies on Russian spaceships to transport American astronauts to and from the space station.
NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver said on Wednesday that it will be dramatically cheaper to spend a small inflatable tube into space than a full-sized module.
Because the launch is the most expensive part of space exploration, she said, "the magnitude of the importance of this really can't be overstated."
Astronauts will test the habitat's ability to withstand heat, radiation, debris and other assaults. Some adventurous scientists might also try sleeping in it, Garver said.
Bigelow said the NASA brand will enable him to start selling habitats that are several times the size of the test module.
"This year is probably going to be our first year talking to customers," he said. "We have to show that we can deliver what we're talking about."
He predicted that the primary customers will be the many countries that "have a difficult time getting their astronomers into orbit" and could use a private space station to barter and build up prestige.
He will rely on Boeing and Southern California rocket developer Space Exploration Technologies to provide transportation.
The biggest technological challenge will be transporting the collapsed module through the sub-zero temperatures of space without tearing or cracking any part of it, Miller said.
Once inflated, the habitat will be exceptionally safe, he said.
"It's actually stronger than the metal cans that are now up there," he said.
When it arrives as the space station in 2015, scientists will blow it up, and then let it sit for a few days to test for leaks. If it does not hold as promised, NASA will take back some of the money $17.8 million it has paid Bigelow.
Standing beside scale models of inflatable habitats on Mars, Miller said the project will encourage commercial ventures to follow the path NASA blazes into space.
He added that it could also open to door to what he considers the holy grail of space exploration: missions that send astronauts out of orbit for more than a year.