NASA and Bigelow Aerospace to announce plans for inflatable station modules
WASHINGTON, Jan 16, 2013 (Orlando Sentinel - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
NASA is expected to announce today the terms of a landmark deal that will allow Bigelow Aerospace, a private company based in North Las Vegas, to attach one of its inflatable habitats to the International Space Station.
The deal gives the company, founded by hotelier Robert Bigelow, the opportunity to test a new type of space dwelling -- essentially a balloon made of Kevlar-like material that is inflated once it reaches orbit -- that would stay attached to the station for at least two years.
Under the agreement, NASA would pay Bigelow Aerospace nearly $18 million for the module, which is about the size of a large bedroom. It would be used to increase the amount of living space aboard the station, which itself is about as big as a football field.
A rocket built by SpaceX, another commercial company under contract with NASA, would blast the module to the station from Cape Canaveral as soon as mid-2015. Bigelow would become the first private company to have one of its modules purchased by NASA and added to the $100 billion, government-run observatory.
"This partnership ... 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 Deputy Administrator Lori Garver said in a statement.
How station astronauts will use the Bigelow module still is under discussion. NASA officials said the prime goal is to see how the technology works.
Unlike other, rigid parts of the station, the module is comparable to a live-in balloon. It would be launched, uninflated, to the station, attached to an air lock with help from one of the station's robotic arms and then blown up with pressurized air.
The module's major benefit is that it is lightweight -- only about 3,000 pounds -- and thus far cheaper to launch than a rigid module that can weigh 10,000 pounds or more.
Though the material would appear vulnerable to hits from space debris, Bigelow officials said the module is equipped with a shield that hypervelocity tests have shown is "superior" to the aluminum walls of the station. The softer, Kevlar-like material also reduces the effect of "secondary radiation," according to the company.
If the Bigelow module proves effective, then it could be considered for other, long-range missions, NASA officials said.
"This is a technology that has been in the exploration road map for the last couple of years [but] needs to mature to the point where we feel comfortable putting it into a [long-range] program," said Glenn Miller, NASA's principal investigator for the project.
One possibility is that inflatable modules could anchor an outpost on the far side of the moon, a destination roughly 277,000 miles from Earth that NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden pitched to the White House last year.
Though the administration has yet to decide on the idea, getting there is a daunting prospect. Bigelow executives said their lightweight modules could be one way to help establish a human presence there or even beyond.
"Regardless of the ultimate destination, be it [the far side of the moon] or even a historic mission to Mars, the large volumes provided by Bigelow Aerospace systems, combined with enhanced protection from radiation and physical debris, make [inflatable] habitats ... an essential part of any realistic beyond low-Earth-orbit architecture," said Mike Gold, director of the company's Washington office.
The idea of inflatable structures is not new. In the 1960s, NASA launched a pair of balloonlike satellites made of Mylar material -- dubbed Echo 1 and Echo 2 -- that were used to test communication technologies.
Though successful, the concept was shelved until the 1990s when NASA considered inflatable structures as one way to house the space station crew.
Though the agency ultimately chose another path, the concept appealed to Robert Bigelow, a space enthusiast and owner of Budget Suites of America. He revived the idea more than a decade ago and since 1999 has launched two inflatable prototypes -- Genesis I and Genesis II -- that remain in orbit today, sending pictures and data back to Earth.
If the upcoming station mission is successful, it will mark the first time an astronaut has entered an inflatable module.
"NASA clearly recognizes the importance of expandable habitats, and [the plan] represents a significant step forward for the agency," Gold said.
Bigelow's long-range business plan is to launch inflatable stations and rent them to space-faring nations looking for a cheaper alternative to building their own version of the $100 billion station. (Space tourists also would be welcome, although that market remains tiny).
So far, Bigelow has preliminary agreements with space agencies or corporations in at least seven countries and hopes for more if the station module is successful. NASA, too, could become a repeat customer.
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