Until someone manages to figure out how to get a space elevator up and running, sending stuff into space is going to remain enormously expensive. Payloads are also limited by size: if it doesn’t fit inside a rocket, it’s not going to make it into orbit. This places significant restrictions on large space structures like the International Space Station, which have to be made up of lots of tiny little modules stuck together, meaning that you don’t have access to a lot of open space.
Fifty years ago, NASA experimented with launching inflatable spacecraft that could be carried into space wadded up inside small rockets, and then pumped up to enormous sizes once they reached orbit. It was a fantastic idea that was in the running for a habitat on the ISS until funding for it was axed by the U.S. Congress. But Bigelow Aerospace has taken up the idea, and at the 2014 International Astronautical Congress last week, the private company reconfirmed its plan to test an inflatable module on the ISS in 2015.
The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) will fly up to the ISS inside the unpressurized
butt trunk of a SpaceX Dragon cargo capsule sometime next year. The station’s Canadarm2 will attach the BEAM to an airlock on the Tranquility module, where it will be slowly inflated:
The BEAM has an internal volume of about 16 cubic meters, which is just enough room for one astronaut to comfortably do a mostly stationary acrobatic routine, and it’s scheduled to remain attached to the ISS for two full years. However, since this is a new thing for both Bigelow and NASA, it’s not likely that astronauts will be able to take full advantage of the space. At the moment, the plan is to keep the BEAM mostly sealed off. Its role will be to house instruments, but astronauts will venture in once or twice a year to make sure that it’s not leaking, irradiated, full of aliens, or otherwise malfunctioning.
If everything goes well with BEAM, Bigelow has plans to launch an inflatable space station of its own sometime after 2016, built around a much larger inflatable module called the BA 330. With 330 cubic meters of usable space, the BA 330 is slightly larger than Skylab was. That makes it more than three times as spacious as the Destiny module, although it’s just 30 percent heavier. The BA 330 will be completely self-contained, flying with all of the infrastructure required to keep humans alive and happy. It should be at least as safe, if not safer, than the ISS modules, with respect to both radiation and impact protection.
Earlier this year, Bigelow announced how much it’ll cost you to spend some time inside the BA 330 when it launches. Expect to pay $25 million for a sixty day lease of one-third of the station—if you can get yourself there and back. Should you need a ride, round-trip taxi service between SpaceX and your local launching pad will run you an additional $26.5 million.
As with most projects of this magnitude, Bigelow has had some ambitious goals that have been tempered by reality over the years. But actually launching and testing hardware in space is a major hurdle that they’re about to clear (again). SpaceX and Boeing (and perhaps even Sierra Nevada) are in the process of proving that private industry is the future of getting humans into space, and Bigelow is out to show that private industry can also be the future of humans staying there.
Evan Ackerman is the senior writer for IEEE Spectrum's award-winning robotics blog, Automaton. Since 2007, he has written over 6,000 articles on robotics and emerging technology, covering conferences and events on every single continent except Antarctica (although he remains optimistic). In addition to Spectrum, Evan's work has appeared in a variety of other online publications including Gizmodo and Slate, and you may have heard him on NPR's Science Friday or the BBC World Service if you were listening at just the right time. Evan has an undergraduate degree in Martian geology, which he almost never gets to use, and still wants to be an astronaut when he grows up. In his spare time, he enjoys scuba diving, rehabilitating injured raptors, and playing bagpipes excellently.