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Bigelow Inflatable Module Will be Added to Space Station

NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver is given a tour of the Bigelow Aerospace facilities in 2011 by the company’s President Robert Bigelow.  Photo: NASA/Bill Ingalls

NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver is given a tour of the Bigelow Aerospace facilities in 2011 by the company’s President Robert Bigelow. Photo: NASA/Bill Ingalls

The next addition to the International Space Station will likely be an inflatable module from Bigelow Aerospace. NASA announced today they have awarded a $17.8 million contract to Bigelow to provide a new module for the ISS. “The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module will demonstrate the benefits of this space habitat technology for future exploration and commercial space endeavors,” NASA said in a press release. This would be the first privately built module to be added to the space station.

“The International Space Station is a unique laboratory that enables important discoveries that benefit humanity and vastly increase understanding of how humans can live and work in space for long periods,” NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver said. “This partnership agreement for the use of expandable habitats represents a step forward in cutting-edge technology that can allow humans to thrive in space safely and affordably, and heralds important progress in U.S. commercial space innovation.”

NASA will release more information about the agreement and the module next week, but previous reports have indicated the inflatable module would be used for adding additional storage and workspace, and the module would be certified to remain on-orbit for two years.
NASA has been in discussions with Bigelow for several years about using their inflatable technology.

In 2006 Bigelow launched their Genesis I inflatable test module into orbit and according to their website, it is still functioning and “continuing to produce invaluable images, videos and data for Bigelow Aerospace. It is now demonstrating the long-term viability of expandable habitat technology in an actual orbital environment.”

A second Genesis module was launched in 2007 and it, too, is still functioning in orbit.
Bigelow has said that even though the outer shell of their module is soft, as opposed to the rigid outer shell of current modules at the ISS, Bigelow’s inflatable modules are more resistant to micrometeoroid or orbital debris strikes. Bigelow uses multiple layers of Vectran, a material which is twice as strong as Kevlar. In ground tests, according to NASASpacefight.com, objects that would penetrate ISS modules only penetrated half-way through the skin of Bigelow’s modules.

About 

Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also works with Astronomy Cast, and is a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Aqua4U January 12, 2013, 12:04 AM

    I hit the ‘Like’ button! Expand the crew? Yes! Install a recreation module? Yes! Install a solar powered foamed metals foundry? Yes! A dedicated space medicine lab? Yes! A module for high energy plasma crystal experiments lab? Yes! (This module attached to a fully extended Canadarm at the farthest latching position on the truss.. that is…. when the power’s turned all the way up? ~@; )

    • Aqua4U January 16, 2013, 12:42 AM

      Could the Bigelow modules be configured into a vessel capable of lunar transit, orbit and back? Lunar Transit Modules Inc. anyone? Low energy orbital transfers mean trips can take weeks? But with all the comforts of home?

  • Simon Donaldson January 12, 2013, 12:32 AM

    If the study results are to be correct, why don’t we make a brand-new blow-up space-station to play in?

    I’ll bring the Helium! – Er, I mean, the Cake! ^^

    • delphinus100 January 12, 2013, 2:01 AM

      Depends on what you mean by ‘we.’ Eventually, someone(s) will…

  • Kevin Frushour January 12, 2013, 1:15 AM

    It’s the Stay-puft Marshmallow Module!

  • Dan Johnson January 12, 2013, 3:05 AM

    This is good news. Can use the ISS to test some new technology. The space station needs more reasons for existing. Inflatables will probably be used on extended missions out into solar system and ISS modules makes a great test bed.

    • TerryG January 12, 2013, 5:32 AM

      Yes it is good news. After this, the next new addition to the ISS should be the ISS centrifuge demonstrator to protect human crew from extended periods of low G and then we’re well on the way to developing an interplanetary vehicle for crewed missions.

      • gopher652003 January 12, 2013, 2:42 PM

        My thoughts exactly. Nautilus-X class “ships” wouldn’t be that expensive to build (probably less than 5 billion a piece), but we need some experience with the various components first. First and foremost we need to advance in-space nuclear reactor technology, and secondly we need to build an ISS centrifuge demonstrator. Everything else is already in the process of being developed (or already has been developed). Those are the only two major components that are missing.

        Given the piddly estimated cost of of the ISS Centrifuge Demonstrator (like 150 million), that should be a top priority for future add-ons to the ISS.

        Plus it’s kinda cool, unlike most of the current batch of ISS experiments.

      • Torbjörn Larsson January 12, 2013, 10:12 PM

        They could also start diversifying in modules for an L2 translunar waystation with refueling abilities, well suited for such N-X class ships and return-to-Moon missions for the fuel et cetera water.

  • Bobby Hudson January 12, 2013, 11:01 AM

    Its about time. The station needs a habitation module for the crew to relax in and for recreation. A dedicated medical research module also is a must need. Additional modules could be dedicated to Astronomy and other research needs. This is highly overdue.

  • Tony Mach January 12, 2013, 2:04 PM

    It’s good to see that this technology will finally put to a real life test – otherwise the previous two Bigelow tests would just have been nothing more than putting more space junk in LEO. The “inflatable module” looks like a good and promising concept, and it deserves to be properly tested.

    It will be interesting to see how they get this module to the ISS, now that the Space Shuttle is retired – they will need something like a service-module for propulsion/guidance/etc. Will they develop their own systems, or will they buy from one of the “commercial crew” companies?

    This would then be the first US space station module to reach a space station under its “own” power.

    I’m looking forward to it!

    • Philip Wilson January 13, 2013, 4:21 PM

      Space-X will do it

      • Tony Mach January 15, 2013, 3:10 PM

        Makes sense. So, just to be clear, they will adapt a Dragon-type service module, and mate it with the Bigelow space station modules?

  • Robert Hemmings January 12, 2013, 2:19 PM

    Hopefully, this could be the first step on the path to filling a similarly constructed module with water ice. Expensive to send enough into orbit, but one day it may be possible to harvest water from asteroids or the Moon. The radiation protection would be superb and by melting the frozen water, it could be recycled indefinitely into replacement modules or even as water for the crew.

  • Jeremy Bowers January 12, 2013, 4:26 PM

    I’m glad to see Bigelow’s patientence has finally paid off. I don’t believe the next step will be space station centrifuges though, I think Nasa wants Bigelow labs on the moon and around it. The next spacestation for L2 will probably be 50% Bigelow with existing spare modules made for the existing ISS; a big chunk of the of the ISS is Russian afterall. Space x will be launching Bigelows BA330 in 2015 to ISS if anybody was interested. Can anyone tell me if Dragon was designed for 3 day crew resupply missions from ISS to L2? The ISS could be repurposed as a Supply depot for the L2 station, this would give the Russians reason to keep the iss instead of sink it in 2020.

    • Torbjörn Larsson January 12, 2013, 10:23 PM

      - The Dragon concept was extendable for longer and manned missions both. The first trait shows up in mission concepts such as Red/Ice Dragon to Mars. But how well today’s version cope I don’t know.

      Also, the current launcher can’t take it there.

      If and when an L2 station is in place, I would think Falcon Heavy and Dragon would be in position to do translunar commercial service. But the cheaper long term alternative could be an N-X class LEO to L2 shuttle.

      – I think that may be backwards. Russia is on notice to plan to take their ISS parts and make a continued LEO station if the international agreement runs out AFAIK. So it seems to me US would be the less persevering partner.

    • Tony Mach January 15, 2013, 3:25 PM

      “… spare modules made for the existing ISS …”

      I don’t think there is so much lying around.

      Nodes: There is AFAIK one spare node on the ground (might be unfinished, may or may not be turned into “Node 4″).

      PMA: Don’t know if there are any spare Pressurized Mating Adapters on the ground. Suspect no more than one lying around.

      Leonardo type modules (PMM/MPLM): The ESA has 2 lying around (the flown Raffaello and the never flown Donatello) – they may or may not be in flight worthy condition. I’m sure ESA would trade them in, but they’ll want something in return for them.

      Destiny spare? Don’t know, guess not.

      So 1 node and 2 PMMs. Just about enough. (It reminds me how the Russians are building space stations after the collapse of the Soviet Union – fly spares that are lying around. Wonder if the USA is already in the process of collapsing…)

      Besides: All experience in launching the above hardware was made with the Space Shuttle. To launch this hardware now, it needs to be mated to a some kind of “service module”, which adds propulsion, guidance, and so on. It isn’t much work that needs to be done, but it isn’t as simple as putting these pieces into the shuttle’s cargo bay…

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