New Inflatable Addition For I.S.S. | Out Of This World Weekly

Bigelow Aerospace has signed an agreement with NASA to launch an add on to the International Space Station.  This additional segment for the space station, known as the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), will be about 13 feet long and 10.5 feet in diameter allowing for additional space for astronauts to utilize.  This additional segment will cost only $17.8 million, which is extremely low in comparison to the hundreds of millions of dollars that other I.S.S. segments cost.  While this particular segment is being launched primarily for testing and proving this technology to be rated for human usage, Bigelow Aerospace has launched several other inflatable habitats in the past.  While these segments were not attached to the I.S.S., they all did successfully prove the technology of usable inflatable space structures. 

This addition to the space station is being planned for 2015, to be launched on a SpaceX Falcon resupply utilizing the unpressurized lower portion of the resupply craft and attached to the space station using space station’s robotic arm.  The addition would mark the first privately made space station segment being delivered by a private launch service.  Is it possible that the future of space exploration will not be carried out by the budgets of large nations?  Bigelow Aerospace hopes that this will be the case and it is continuing to develop inflatable segments for what it hopes will be the first privately owned space station.  While the segment being delivered to the space station is large enough to fit several people inside, Bigelow has been developing much larger inflatable spaces.  Each of these segments would be considered a space station on their own, yet they are designed so that several of them could be attached together to form a space station that is several times larger than the combined size of the I.S.S. 

So who would be using this privately owned space station?  It is thought that passengers aboard one of the many privately owned space launch firms would want somewhere to go in orbit.  This would likely be a space hotel where visitors could float around for a few days and experience the wonders of space flight.  Other private corporations would have the option of leasing space modules for whatever research, manufacturing, communications, or advertising, reasons that they might have at costs that would be fractional in comparison to I.S.S. standards.  The segment to be attached to the I.S.S. is also functioning as an advertisement to the world showing that Bigelow Aerospace is a world class provider of reliable space services, while allowing additional space for crew members to utilize for various purposes.

This new segment will also offer some things that the current segments have no way of providing.  These inflatable segments are made of extremely tough fabric that is thought to offer expanded protection from any space debris that might come hurtling at the station at tens of thousands of miles per hour.  Traditional metal segments have offered fair protection in the past but as you can see on any armored soldier today, they are wearing tough engineered fabrics to protect them from bullets as the days of heavy and bulky metal armor are over.  It is also thought that these types of walls offer greater protection from dangerous radiation.  Much of the radiation inside a metal spacecraft can occur as a result of radiation striking the metal, which in turn creates a larger shower of energetic particles thereby increasing overall radiation inside the metal craft.  This doesn’t happen when the walls are made of fabric and it is thought that the lighter elements that compose these fabrics do play a role in dissipating a certain amount of radiation.  Perhaps the most dangerous threat to future space stations is the lack of funding.  These inflatable stations reduce the costs associated with the weight of launch while increasing the volume of usable space.

Inflatable habitats may not just be the future of low Earth orbit.  This type of structure would allow for stations to be placed at gravitationally stable Lagrange points, attached to asteroids, placed on the Moon or even Mars.  When you are paying tens of thousands of dollars per pound launched, you want your cargo to be as light and flexible as is possible.  The only reason that these inflatable structures haven’t been used in the past is that the birth of spaceflight didn’t include many of the super fabrics that exist today.  Nobody in the great space race was counting on fabrics to be so resilient and versatile and many of today’s designs are direct descendants of those first proven metal designs.  It may be time to move into the future of space habitat design and this addition to the space station is a great way to prove to naysayers that this technology is here to stay for the 21st century. 


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