Slated to launch in mid-2015, the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM, will fly to space deflated before being puffed into a 13-by-10-foot cylinder.
Rather than providing new living space for astronauts, the module will test whether inflatable habitats have a future as orbiting laboratories, lunar outposts or living quarters for deep-space missions.
And it's arriving at a bargain price for space hardware. NASA is paying Bigelow Aerospace of Nevada $17.8 million for the module.
"This is a great way for NASA to utilize private-sector investment, and for pennies on the dollar to expand our understanding of this technology," said Lori Garver, the agency's deputy administrator.
Station astronauts will periodically enter the BEAM to check whether its thick yet flexible walls, which include layers of Kevlar, adequately block the twin hazards of space travel: radiation and micrometeorites traveling faster than bullets.
"The plan is to have the hatch closed most of the time, with the crew going in and out a few times a year to collect data," Garver said. The module will stay attached to the station for two years.
"We have ambitions to go to the moon someday, have a base there," said Robert Bigelow, the real estate and hotel magnate who founded Bigelow Aerospace.
Inflatables offer two advantages over traditional aluminum-can-like modules. They weigh less per cubic foot of living space, making them cheaper to launch, and they can balloon to diameters far too wide to fit on current rockets.
Bigelow licensed the concept from NASA in 1999 after the agency abandoned plans to use inflatable living quarters for a mission to Mars.
NASA is Bigelow's first customer. On Wednesday, Bigelow said he and his wife have sunk $250 million into developing inflatable space habitats. They hope to attract wealthy tourists, pharmaceutical companies, and governments that want affordable space programs to an orbital outpost Bigelow says will be ready to fly in 2016.
Called Alpha, the private space station will offer living space for 12 — twice the occupancy of the international space station. Renting one sixth of Alpha for two months will cost $25 million, Bigelow said, transportation not included.
It's unclear if a market exists for a private space station, said Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.
Still, Bigelow has already tasted success. In 2006 and 2007, the company launched two small inflatable satellites atop Russian ballistic missiles. Both operated as planned.
Wednesday's announcement marks a deepening of NASA's partnerships with commercial companies. The agency is also funding three companies developing craft to transport astronauts to and from orbit — vehicles also needed to bring customers to Bigelow's outposts. One of those companies, Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, will fly the BEAM module to the space station in the "trunk" of one of its uncrewed Dragon capsules.
"It sounds like a good deal for both NASA and Bigelow," said Pace. "Nothing can replace flight-test experience."
The project may also stymie criticism that the 16-nation international space station, which took 13 years to construct, has been underutilized by NASA, said former station commander Michael Lopez-Alegria, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation. "It's a real step in the right direction."
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