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NASA To Test Inflatable Room For Astronauts In Space

An artist's rendering of the BEAM inflatable annex attached to the side of the International Space Station.
Courtesy of Bigelow Aerospace
An artist's rendering of the BEAM inflatable annex attached to the side of the International Space Station.

A new era for living in space may be about to start.

A prototype habitat is headed to the International Space Station for a two-year trial. What makes the module unique is it's launched folded up, and it's inflated to its full size once in orbit.

The idea for inflatables began at NASA's Johnson Space Center in the 1990s. The space agency was trying to figure out how to get astronauts to Mars, without the crew going crazy living in a tiny capsule for months on end.

Kriss Kennedy was a NASA space architect working on the problem. It essentially boiled down to this: How do you pack a large living structure into a small rocket cargo space? The solution: inflatables.

"Well, there are several advantages for inflatable habitats; one is you can package it in a smaller volume," says Kennedy, and then expand it once you get into space.

The inflatable is not like a balloon. Folded up, it just looks like a cylinder. Expanded, it grows upward and outward so it looks more like a watermelon.

It's made of multiple layers of Kevlar and other materials resistant to micrometeorites. And even though it's inflated, Kennedy says you shouldn't think of it as squishy.

"It's very rigid," he says. "Once you get even a partial pressure it's extremely hard, as hard as aluminum."

But as enthusiastic as some at NASA were for this new approach to building space habitats, Congress wasn't sufficiently impressed, and in 2000 legislators told NASA to kill the program.

Enter billionaire Robert Bigelow, a man who made his fortune in budget hotels. He saw a future for inflatable space habitats, maybe even space hotels.

He got the rights to NASA's inflatable technology and created Bigelow Aerospace.

After more than a decade of development, the company has produced BEAM, Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, and NASA has agreed to attach it to the International Space Station and see how it performs.

Folded up, BEAM is about 6 feet by 6 feet. Inflated, it's about 12 feet by 10 feet, approximately the size of a small RV.

NASA wanted extra room that could be transported to space in compact form and expanded upon arrival.
/ Courtesy of Bigelow Aerospace
Courtesy of Bigelow Aerospace
NASA wanted extra room that could be transported to space in compact form and expanded upon arrival.

Jason Crusan is in charge of BEAM for NASA. He says when it arrives at the station, astronauts will remove it from the cargo rocket with the station's robotic arm and plug into a node on the station.

Once it's securely attached, the astronauts will start to inflate it.

"It could be done as fast as four minutes," says Crusan. "We're not going to do it that fast. We'll do it over the course of several hours."

It's not that expanding it too fast might make it pop. BEAM's layered design won't let that happen. He says you could poke a big hole in an outer layer "and it will leak, obviously. but it's not going to puncture like a balloon."

While it's attached to the space station, the plan is for the crew to go inside the habitat from time to time to see how it's performing. Crusan says there are no plans at the moment for the crew to have a sleepover.

BEAM will be attached to the space station for two years. After that it will be detached and allowed to burn up in Earth's atmosphere.

Crusan says NASA now sees a future for inflatables, and it's the same future as in the 1990s: getting humans to Mars.

"We do want to look at the use of expandables in what we call our Mars transit architecture," he says.

What goes around comes around.

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Corrected: April 10, 2016 at 10:00 PM MDT
A previous version of this post incorrectly identified Kriss Kennedy as a NASA engineer. He is a space architect.
Joe Palca
Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. He is currently focused on the eponymous series, "Joe's Big Idea." Stories in the series explore the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. Palca is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.