Expandable space stations will be tested and proven in space within 12 months and then larger modules will increase space station size per cost by over ten times

Bigelow Aerospace of Las Vegas, Nevada, has entered into a joint agreement with NASA to leverage the company’s B330 inflatable space habitat for use with NASA’s human space flight program. With the space agency eyeing deep space destinations – such as an asteroid and perhaps one day Mars – the systems could enable crews to travel deeper into the Solar System than humans have ever been to do before.

Late this year or early next, NASA will build an addition to the International Space Station, increasing the orbital laboratory’s size from eight rooms to nine. The new room is like no other on the station, and will be very easy to construct: Just connect to a docking port, fill with compressed air, and voilà! Instant space habitat

Bigelow Aerospace in North Las Vegas needed to create the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM. Initially scheduled for a September launch, BEAM’s test deployment is now delayed due to the post-launch explosion of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket bound for the ISS on June 28 — and no one yet knows how long that delay will be. Once BEAM does reach its destination, it will undergo two years of intensive testing, a trial run for a technology that could play a significant role in future human spaceflight and low-Earth-orbit commercial ventures: inflatable spacecraft.

BEAM, designed to expand to 16 cubic meters, or about the size of a 10- by 12-foot room, weighs only 3,000 pounds at launch. Its density—that is, its mass divided by its volume—is 88 kilograms per cubic meter. By comparison, the density of the U.S. lab at the International Space Station, Destiny, is 137 kilograms per cubic meter. The ISS’s Tranquility module has a density of 194 kilograms per cubic meter.

The actual architecture of TransHab included three thin-film air bladders covered by alternating layers of ceramic fabric, polyurethane foam, and Kevlar. The ceramic fabric, called Nextel, was sandwiched by three-inch layers of foam.Together, the layers served to protect against micrometeoroids. The Kevlar webbing made up TransHab’s pressure-holding restraint layer, which was woven like a rug to reduce the number of seams and maximize strength. Inside TransHab, two-inch-thick walls surrounding bedrooms would be filled with water to shield crew members from radiation.

BEAM represents a generation of refinement to that earlier design. From inside to outside, says Dasgupta, it includes a bladder, restraint system, micrometeoroid/orbital debris protection, insulation, and an external thermal blanket. (BEAM’s precise makeup is proprietary.) Gold says BEAM’s “Kevlar-like” protective layers will measure up. “We have done side-by-side hyper-velocity impact testing with portions of the ISS’s [micrometeoroid/orbital debris protection] layers,” he says. “Our system offers equal if not superior protections to what’s on the ISS today.”

He pauses before choosing a dramatic example. “If you’re about to get shot, would you rather have aluminum in front of you or a Kevlar vest?”

Assuming BEAM performs well, Big­elow Aerospace envisions B330 modules used as stand-alone space stations for the private sector. Pharmaceutical and materials science firms, for example, could use B330 modules as laboratories for product development, says Gold. (He declines to say how the B330 modules will be priced.) The B330s accommodate six, and Bigelow hopes they will become integral to deep-space missions—crashpads to keep astronauts from being confined to a capsule, like NASA’s planned Orion spacecraft.

Nextstep B330

Using a NextSTEP contract, Bigelow will work with NASA to investigate how the B330 platform might be used to support robust, safe, and affordable human spaceflight to the Moon and Mars.

The B330, unlike traditional space station habitats, is an inflatable design. The advantage is you gain more volume for a given mass. For example, the Destiny module on the International Space Station (ISS) is a 15-ton section with a volume of 3,743 cubic feet (106 cubic meters). The B330 has a mass of approximately 20 tons but has a gigantic 11,654 cubic feet (330 cubic meters) of interior volume.

The advantages of the inflatable habitat do not end there. The B330 has superior ballistics protection to the ISS, something to consider when dealing with potential micrometeorites. Any small object penetrating the outer Kevlar shell will break into many smaller pieces and become embedded in the flexible foam and Kevlar layers.

With 24 to 36 layers (depending on location) the B330 can be as hard as concrete when fully expanded. Additionally, the B330 has radiation shielding equivalent to the ISS to protect the crew from solar storms. The B330 is equipped with solar panels, thermal radiators, and large windows and is capable of supporting a crew of six.

SOURCES Air and Space Magazine, Space Flight Insider, Bigelow Aerospace