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.
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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.