Space station to get $18 million balloon-like room (Update)

Jan 17, 2013 by Hannah Dreier
This artist's rendering provided by Bigelow Aerospace shows a Bigelow inflatable space station. NASA is partnering with this commercial space company to test an inflatable room that can be compressed into a 7-foot tube for delivery to the International Space Station. NASA is expected to install the module by 2015. (AP Photo/Bigelow Aerospace)

NASA is partnering with a commercial space company in a bid to replace the cumbersome "metal cans" that now serve as astronauts' homes in space with inflatable bounce-house-like habitats that can be deployed on the cheap.

A $17.8 million test project will send to the an inflatable room that can be compressed into a 7-foot (2.1-meter) tube for delivery, officials said Wednesday in a news conference at North Las Vegas-based Bigelow .

If the module proves durable during two years at the space station, it could open the door to habitats on the moon and missions to Mars, engineer Glen Miller said.

The agency chose Bigelow for the contract because it was the only company working on inflatable technology, said NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver.

Founder and President Robert Bigelow, who made his fortune in the hotel industry before getting into the space business in 1999, framed the gambit as an out-of-this-world real estate venture. He hopes to sell his spare tire habitats to scientific companies and wealthy adventurers looking for space hotels.

NASA is expected to install the 13-foot (4-meter), blimp-like module in a space station port by 2015. Bigelow plans to begin selling stand-alone space homes the next year.

Bigelow Aerospace founder and president Robert Bigelow, listens to questions from members of the media during a news conference, Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013, in Las Vegas. Bigelow spoke about the company's new contract to provide NASA with a habitat module for the International Space Station. Pictured with Bigelow is a BA 330 module, similar in function to what the new Bigelow Expandable Activity Module will be. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

The provides three times as much room as the existing aluminum models, and is also easier and less costly to build, Miller said.

Artist renderings of the module resemble a tinfoil clown nose grafted onto the main station. It is hardly big enough to be called a room. Miller described it as a large closet with padded white walls and gear and gizmos strung from two central beams.

Garver said Wednesday that sending a small inflatable tube into space will be dramatically cheaper than launching a full-sized module.

"Let's face it; the most expensive aspect of taking things in space is the launch," she said. "So the magnitude of importance of this for NASA really can't be overstated."

A model of a space complex is on display during a news conference with Bigelow Aerospace president Robert Bigelow and NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver, Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013, in Las Vegas. NASA has awarded a contact to Bigelow Aerospace to provide NASA with a Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, a habitat module for the International Space Station. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

The partnership is another step toward outsourcing for NASA, which no longer enjoys the budget and public profile of its heyday. The agency has handed off rocket-building to private companies, retired it space shuttles in 2011 and now relies on Russian spaceships to transport American astronauts to and from the space station.

Astronauts will test the ability of the bladder, known as the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM, to withstand heat, radiation, debris and other assaults. Some adventurous scientists might also try sleeping in the spare room, which is the first piece of private real estate to be blasted into space, Garver said.

Bigelow said the NASA brand will enable him to begin selling Kevlar habitats several times the size of the test module.

A model of a concept space station made with Bigelow Aerospace habitat modules is on display at the company's headquarters during a news conference, Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013, in Las Vegas. NASA has awarded a contact to Bigelow Aerospace to provide NASA with a Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, a habitat module for the International Space Station. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

"This year is probably going to be our kickoff year for talking to customers," he said. "We have to show that we can execute what we're talking about."

Bigelow, who launched a small prototype of the module in 2006 after licensing the patent from NASA, will rely on Boeing Co. and Southern California rocket developer Space Exploration Technologies to provide transportation.

A 60-day stay will cost $25 million, which doesn't include the $27.5 million it costs to get there and back.

Bigelow predicted that the primary customers will be upwardly mobile countries including Brazil, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates that "have a difficult time getting their astronauts into orbit" and could use a private space station to barter and build up prestige.

The biggest technological challenge will be transporting the collapsed module through the sub-zero temperatures of space without tearing or cracking any part of it, Miller said.

Bigelow Aerospace president Robert Bigelow, left, and NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver answer questions for the media during a news conference, Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013, in Las Vegas. NASA has awarded a contact to Bigelow Aerospace to provide NASA with a Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, a habitat module for the International Space Station. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

When it arrives at the space station in 2015, scientists will blow it up and let it sit for a few days to test for leaks. If it does not hold as promised, NASA will take back a portion of the already bargain basement price it paid Bigelow.

Standing beside scale models of research stations on Mars and the , Miller said the project will encourage commercial ventures to follow the path NASA blazes into space.

He added that it could also help achieve the holy grail of space exploration: missions that send astronauts out of orbit for more than a year.

"The only way to do that is to expand it out and voila you have living space for three people to go to Mars," he said. "You can get three times the volume of a metallic can, and you can go up in the same ferry."

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User comments : 20

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jonnyboy
1.3 / 5 (13) Jan 16, 2013
so we are paying this company to develop and test a product for sale to others?.......where do i sign up cause i could use some NASA money.
FrankHerbert
2.2 / 5 (17) Jan 16, 2013
NASA isn't going to fund your teledildonics company.
dav_daddy
3.2 / 5 (11) Jan 16, 2013
NASA isn't paying them to develop the thing, (although there may have been some federal grant money at some time.) In this case NASA is a paying customer like anyone else. They are paying for the privately developed inflatable space habitat.

Am I the only one who thinks of the movie Deuce Bigelo male giggalo every time I hear their name? I can't get the picture out of head of astronauts opening up the new module and there being that huge black transvestite in there going "Somebody say steak?"
antialias_physorg
3.9 / 5 (8) Jan 17, 2013
so we are paying this company to develop and test a product for sale to others?

This might come as a shock to you - but almost every industry works that way more or less (electronics, pharmaceutical, auto-industry, biomedical, defense contractors, ... ).
Almost all technological advances are first researched in joint research efforts between universities, government funded agencies and the industry with, inlarge part, grant money from the government.

Companies shy away from investing in research as it often doesn't pan out (total loss). Or it is later quickly copied - or patents circumvented by minor alterations - by others (which means others had very much lower initial investments).

There are a very few notable exceptions that do research on their own (IBM and Sony come to mind)

'Capitalism' which gives you newly researched products is a myth.
ScottyB
3.3 / 5 (3) Jan 17, 2013
This is pretty cool! can't wait until its up there and attached to the station. Wonder how much more radiation protection it offers over a regular module?
antialias_physorg
2.3 / 5 (6) Jan 17, 2013
They claim to have "better radiation protection and better protection from secondary radiation"

The problem with such claims is: They sort of contradict each other.
Secondary radiation is created when (primary) radiation impacts/interacts with some material (e.g. the aluminum walls of the conventional modules).
So an increase in secondary radiation is always accompanied by a reduction in primary radiation. (And conversely a reduction in secondary radiation - as claimed - means more primary radiation passes unhindered)

That said: the energy deposited per mass (measured in Gray) isn't the crucial factor. What counts is the biologically relevant dose (so called 'effective dose', measured in Sievert)

The effective dose does not go linearly with the energy of the radiation. Some low energy radiation can be much more, biologically, harmful than higher energy stuff (read: hiding behind a wall of unsuitable material can be more harmful than not being shielded at all)
ShotmanMaslo
4.3 / 5 (6) Jan 17, 2013
"And conversely a reduction in secondary radiation - as claimed - means more primary radiation passes unhindered"

This is not necessarily true. If you use better material capable of more reduction of primary radiation without generating secondary radiation (light nuclei instead of heavy aluminium is used in Bigelow modules), you can reduce secondary radiation without increasing primary radiation (in fact you reduce both).
antialias_physorg
3 / 5 (2) Jan 17, 2013
Light nuclei have a smaller effective cross sections. And from what I gather the inflateable sections have less mass than a their conventional counterparts. To block more radiation with lighter nuclei you'd have to have at least equivalent (if not more) mass. And that means: a lot thicker walls.

I hope they publish some actual measurements before putting astronauts in these.

philw1776
3.4 / 5 (5) Jan 17, 2013
Unlike Lock Mart and most DOD and previous NASA contracts which pay for R&D, Bigelow developed this product with private capital. The reluctance by the dinosaur military industrial complex companies to put much of their capital at risk is one more reason they're becoming obsolete in aerospace.

This is a win-win where Bigelow gets a real world test and NASA gets a big increase in station volume at a bargain price. Previous ISS modules cost NASA over a billion in development costs each.

Kudos to the Obama administration for their insightful policies supporting commercial space development, policies which are opposed by pork seeking congressional reps of both parties with old style defense contractors in their districts. NASA's manned spaceflight program long ago morphed from a space program into a congressional district Jobs program.
Mike_Massen
1.8 / 5 (4) Jan 17, 2013
:hmmm: Wouldnt it be appropriate to fill the outside layer of the 'bubble chamber' water and achieve thermal homeostasis thus providing some radiation protection, the water can either be suitable for drinking or drawn off waste/internal condensation/air con or a mixture of all, either in compartments or suitable mix for extraction/reuse for the life cycle of the craft.

I wonder how much water can be collected from the reactive oxygen at those altitudes in convert with remnants of the sun's proton flux to be collected on a suitable surface and drawn through hydrophilic materials into store... ?
NotAsleep
not rated yet Jan 17, 2013
Unlike Lock Mart and most DOD and previous NASA contracts which pay for R&D, Bigelow developed this product with private capital. The reluctance by the dinosaur military industrial complex companies to put much of their capital at risk is one more reason they're becoming obsolete in aerospace.


The military industrial complex is cutting edge. The funding mechanisms are antiquated and bureaucracy refuses to fix that problem... but anyway, why would the military want to fund this project? And would you really want the DoD funding a program that enhances living conditions in space? That would likely be bad press for them... NASA & private industry can and should handle this on their own
Phil DePayne
2.6 / 5 (5) Jan 17, 2013
This is great, but I want to see a module that produces simulated gravity via centripetal force. Everything in space seems to me lo-tech without simulated gravity. And how about an electric shield to deflect radiation?
antialias_physorg
3 / 5 (2) Jan 17, 2013
Everything in space seems to me lo-tech without simulated gravity.

Are you aware why we have a station in space in the first place? (Hint: experiments in microgravity)
baudrunner
2.2 / 5 (5) Jan 17, 2013
The new technology provides three times as much room as the existing aluminum models, and is also easier and less costly to build, Miller said.
This is essenctially NASA's 1990's TransHab project given a new lease on life, since it was scrapped from NASA's budget back in 2000 (for some reason), so it is not exactly what I would call a "new technology". It's never been tested in space, so its future potential is at stake here. My instincts say go with the aluminum can.

StarGazer2011
3 / 5 (4) Jan 17, 2013
Bigelow has had two small modules in orbit for ages now (since at least 2006). Originally their stated plan was to launch a full size 'SunDancer' module a while back, not sure why they didnt.
Inflatable modules seem the smart way to go; probably people will look back at the aluminium can period of space exploration the same way we look at penny farthing bicycles (hopefully).
Egleton
1 / 5 (4) Jan 18, 2013
Can we lift a substantial sample of Gaia to the le Grange points before civilization collapses, please.
Factors to consider: 35 year doubling time of the population,
The environmental Catastrophe, the loss of our energy source and general inability to think like adults. No-one is going to save your derriere, except yourself.
antialias_physorg
3 / 5 (2) Jan 18, 2013
Wouldnt it be appropriate to fill the outside layer of the 'bubble chamber' water

There's not that much water on the ISS (average consuption per astronaut is 2.7 liters per day and 4 liters for a shower - most of which is recycled). Total amount on the ISS is a few hundred liters - which isn't nearly enough to get any decent shielding if you spread it around the surface.

If you want to lift off extra water for shielding from Earth then that just means you're putting unneccessary, extra weight in orbit. In that case the whole advantage of having inflateables is gone.
alq131
not rated yet Jan 18, 2013
There was an interesting book, though somewhat "out there" called "Colonizing the galaxy in 8 easy steps". It had a somewhat cultish feel, but the technology thoughts were very good. In it, one of the steps was to create nested bubbles, Habitats, that used water as shielding, for consumption, and for growing algae for food.
Carting a bunch of water into space isn't very efficient, but may be the first step to having some basic resources to then make the step to getting space-based resources such as comets, martian water, etc. There needs to be some sort of bootstrapping, but water could provide also for propulsion if you split it using solar-generated electricity. use the O2 for air, H2 for ion propulsion, etc.
rwinners
3 / 5 (2) Jan 18, 2013
Water can be had from the moon.
Torbjorn_Larsson_OM
not rated yet Jan 19, 2013
"NASA gets a big increase in station volume at a bargain price." It's a 2 year temporary, to make room for commercial crew entrances. But yes, in principle.

"Can we lift a substantial sample of Gaia to the le Grange points". It's Lagrange points, from the venerable classical mechanics developer, and no, we can't, since there is no "Gaia".

If you mean a biosphere, sure. AFAIK the current closure is 70 %, but it can be fed volatiles until we figure closure out. If we park one artificial biosphere at the EM2 point, future resource exploitation of Moon water should make it independent.

As for "35 year doubling time of the population", you are dreaming. 2012 saw the inflection of the population growth, for the first time an added billion was slower than before. (4th ~ 30 years, 5th 13 years, 6th 12 years, now 7th 13 years; Wikipedia.)

It follows most likely projections of some 8-9 billion tops before shrinking again after 2030ish. (Wikipedia).

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