Monday, February 4, 2013

NASA Hires Vegas Company For Inflatable Space Module

Artist's rendition of Bigelow's expandable space habitat.
In 2000, NASA's budget was gutted by Congress and it decided to scrap many brainstorm projects, one of which for an "expandable module" that would be made of flexible material and supplement the International Space Station (ISS).  NASA sold the patents for the module to one Robert Bigelow, a real estate mogul who wanted to use his fortune to finance space endeavors.

Fast forward thirteen years and hundreds of millions of dollars later; Bigelow Aerospace has put not one, but TWO prototypes in orbit, the Genesis 1 and 2.  Even better, NASA has contracted the Las Vegas-based company to develop an inflatable space habitat that will be able to attach to the ISS.  Robert Bigelow's investment will pay off.

And it should, because the technology is fascinating both in its simplicity of design, and in the multiple problems with space travel it addresses.  Bigelow claims the floppy cloth walls that blow up like a balloon are nevertheless just as protective from impact and radiation as standard designs.  Being lightweight and able to inflate after launch makes the module cost-effective in fuel and saves time in the launching process itself.   Matt Gurney of Canada's National Post makes additional  interesting points as well:

"...Rockets are skinny. Objects headed into space must not only be light enough to be lifted by the rocket, but capable of squeezing into narrow cargo holds. The now-retired space shuttles, for instance, could carry payloads up to 59 feet long, but only 15 feet wide.

This is problematic. If the total width of your vessel is limited to 15 feet, a strong hull, insulation, radiation shielding and all the equipment necessary to run the ship leaves little room left inside for anything else. The result: Extremely cramped living conditions have been an unavoidable fact of manned space exploration.

People can tolerate enclosed environments. But to really explore the solar system, a ship will require so much gear, and the crew so much storage space for supplies, that we need to build bigger than we ever have before. Not to mention the psychological benefit of being able to stretch one’s legs on a mission that could last years or months."

 - Matt Gurney, "Full Comment", National Post, 1/24/13.

More available space not only makes it easier for the crew,
but provides opportunity for wider cargo.
It's not the sexiest issue of space exploration but it is crucial: making the area of a space vehicle or module larger in circumference opens up so many more possibilities.

And no matter what NASA decides about the model, Bigelow's long-term goal is  to move forward with a privately-funded expandable space station and habitat.  Imagine laboratories and cargo stations big enough for dozens of people to roam around.  With a variety of private shuttles already designed and in the prototype phases, this may be a lot closer to happening than conventional wisdom believes.

Donal Thoms-Cappello is a freelance writer for Rotor Clip Company.

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