Wed. Mar 22nd, 2023
Bigelow Aerospace's expandable habitat is lifted into Dragon's trunk for a ride to the space station.

Bigelow Aerospace’s expandable habitat is lifted into Dragon’s trunk for a ride to the space station.


It’s a big idea. It’s a bold idea. And at first glance, it seems like a bit of a crazy idea. A company called Bigelow Aerospace wants to build space stations for the government and hotels for private customers that will blow up like balloons once they reach space. Bigelow’s inflatables have the potential to revolutionize aerospace by providing lighter and much larger space living spaces. But the big question remains: does anyone really want to live in a space balloon?

NASA plans to find out and has signed a $17.8 million contract with Bigelow to do so. As early as April 8, a deflated module will be launched in the trunk of a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft. The space agency has agreed to attach a test module to the International Space Station, blow it up and determine over the course of two years whether such a device can work in space. Crew won’t live in it – inflatables remain too experimental to risk life and limb. But if the module holds up, NASA will invest more money into the technology.

The space agency has said it wants to use the space station as a platform for technologies that enable deep space exploration, and perhaps reduce its costs. With the Bigelow module, NASA appears to be doing just that. “It’s a big step for us because inflatables can be a big multiplier for us as we go further into space,” Johnson Space Center deputy director Mark Geyer said at a recent NASA Advisory Board meeting.

A big chance

Bigelow is confident his technology will work. In an interview, Mike Gold, director of BIgelow’s DC operations and business growth, said the company already launched two autonomous test modules in 2006 and 2007, called Genesis 1 and 2, which are still flying. The company’s founder, Robert Bigelow, made his fortune in real estate and the hotel business. When he founded Bigelow Aerospace in 1999, he envisioned the idea of ​​opening a chain of hotels in the space.

But there was a transportation problem. Ten years ago, when it flew the Genesis modules, Bigelow thought private spacecraft would come sooner, lowering the cost of getting people into low Earth orbit and on the doorstep of their hotels. But the commercial crew vehicles now being developed by Boeing and SpaceX won’t be ready until late 2017 at the earliest. “The challenge we’ve faced is that our progress has outpaced the commercial crew,” said Gold.

With something to do in the meantime, the company turned to NASA and developed the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM. It offers Bigelow a chance to further refine its systems, and it gives NASA a chance to kick the tires on a promising but untested technology. NASA will observe the module to see how it interacts with radiation from space, measure its thermal properties and test other environmental conditions, such as noise.

If all goes well, NASA will eventually let its astronauts in. “When an astronaut steps into a Bigelow habitat for the first time, it will be a big moment for the company,” Gold said.

The company could use a bull’s eye. In January, Space News reported that the company had laid off 30 to 50 of its approximately 150 employees. Bigelow told the publication that his company was overstaffed and that his intention was to make the aerospace company “behave more financially responsible, both generate revenue and maintain the financial utility of operating expenses.”

Inflatable benefits

Despite the layoffs, the company’s technology remains promising. Size and weight are the two biggest hurdles to packing a lot of stuff into space. It took NASA dozens of costly space shuttle launches to assemble the International Space Station piece by piece. Lacking a rigid structure, inflatables can be folded within the limited diameter of a missile fairing. Once in space, they can be expanded to create a huge amount of volume. There is also a significant mass saving.

In terms of radiation, Gold said Bigelow’s inflatables should be as good as or better than the space station in terms of radiation mitigation. Unlike the station’s metallic enclosure, which scatters radiation from solar flares, the expandable module’s non-metallic skin should reduce this scattering effect.

Then there is debris. “The biggest concern I hear is, if it’s a balloon, will it pop?” said gold. “Quite the opposite.” The expandable’s Kevlar-like fabric should be at least as protective as the station’s aluminum hull when it comes to orbital debris, Gold said. Because of this dusty material, Gold also said Beam will likely prove to be a quieter venue than the notoriously noisy station interior.

Even as Bigelow works on Beam, it has its eyes on bigger things, what it calls its B330 module. It is so named because it is said to offer 330 cubic meters of interior space. In comparison, the station has about 425 cubic meters of habitable volume.

Bigelow says this module could support the aspirations of a space hotel, but could also be used for all sorts of spaceflights. NASA might want to use one as a near-moon space station, and it could also be adapted to support operations on the moon’s surface. Last July, the space agency signed a “NextStep” agreement with Bigelow to study the use of the B330 module for deep space exploration. A successful Beam would go a long way in validating the company’s bigger ambitions.

And so we’ll see if balloons can break barriers again. More than two centuries ago, humans first began using hot air balloons to shed their earth-bound buoys. Today, Bigelow is betting it’s another balloon-like technology that will allow us to defy Earth’s gravity — this time escaping completely into deep space.

By akfire1

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