Living in what amounts to a giant balloon in space, sounds like a terrible idea. A single tear from a manufacturing fault or a micrometeorite strike could cause the thing to go ‘pop’, or so you would think. In actual fact, so called inflatable space habitats represent a very safe and promising method of construction for spacecraft and space stations.
Like the most rugged tired you can find, wrapped in a bulletproof vest.
But these are no balloon or jumping castle, able to be burst by something as simple as a pinprick, rather they are more like the most rugged tired you can find, wrapped in a bulletproof vest. Through using layers of super strong polymer and kevlar fiber, these inflating space habitats are theoretically more resistant to damage than a traditional rigid steel or aluminium structure.
Pioneering this new technology is Bigelow Aerospace, who have already launched several of these inflatable structures into orbit. Next year however will come their greatest challenge, as for the first time their inflatable space capsule will be manned. The BEAM (Bigelow Expandable Activity Module) will be carried to the International Space Station in 2015 aboard a SpaceX rocket, where it will then be attached to an airlock and inflated.
Once this happens a variety of tests will be carried out to make sure the module is undamaged, and able to remain pressurized in the harsh environment of space. Should it pass all of its tests, astronauts aboard the ISS will be able to board it at will, giving them a little more precious living space aboard the space station.
The BEAM module however represents just the beginning of Bigelow Aerospace’s plans. Given the fact that inflatable modules are both cheaper and lighter than traditional space habitats, the company believes that it is the perfect way to construct future space stations.
Rather than working with governments on further expanding the ISS project, the company has plans to build its own, privately funded space habitat. This project which it calls BA 330 is projected to be launched in 2016 and is expected to be operated as a space tourism destination. In effect, it will become the world’s first space hotel, taking advantage of the reduced costs of Low-Earth Orbit launches due to SpaceX.
While, for the most of us who don't have millions to spend on space tourism, it may seem like a distant dream, technology like this is slowly making space travel more accessible to private citizens. Maybe, at some point, decades into the future you too will spend time aboard a giant blow-up house in the sky…
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