NASA announced yesterday that the agency has agreed to a deal with Bigelow Aerospace to expand the International Space Station with the company's inflatable module. The extra room is slated for deployment in 2015. The new space will serve as a test-bed for inflatable space technology, with astronauts measuring things such as the structure's durability and leak rate (!!).
Why look to inflatable modules as the future of space habitats? For one, they're inexpensive. The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) will cost NASA just $17.8 million, a drop in the bucket of a $150 billion program. Another cost-saving feature is how light an inflatable structure can be. Rather than the metal which makes up most space hardware, the BEAM uses plastic (and air!). The actual rocket launch is often the most expensive part of travelling to low Earth orbit, so weight saved equals money saved. Finally, an inflatable structure can be tightly folded up for launch, allowing more economical use of space on the aforementioned rocket launches.
Bigelow is hoping to turn these inflatable habitats into the next (first?) generation of space tourism. If the NASA tests go well, they hope to launch their own complex of larger structures, building the first private space station. The cost of a stay? Twenty million dollars for 60 days. While that might seem like a lot, the same fee would only get you three days on the ISS. While this might be too expensive for all but the ultra-rich, it could be a boon for the space programs of smaller countries.
After its two-year mission on the ISS, the BEAM will be jettisoned towards the Earth, where it will burn up upon re-entry. Check out the video above to see what its deployment will look like.