Nasa, Bigelow to launch ISS’ inflatable spare room by 2015

Tags: Knowledge

Bigelow Aerospace awarded $17.8m to demonstrate the technology

The International Space Station is getting an inflatable spare room. The first-of-its-kind habitat built by Bigelow Aerospace weighs 3,000 pounds and is made of a Kevlar-like material to withstand space debris and radiation. It looks more like a giant propane gas tank than a kids’ moon bounce and will be attached to a port on the space station.

It will rocket into space in 2015 with the blessing of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which last week awarded the firm a $17.8 million contract to demonstrate the technology. Eventually, Las Vegas hotelier Robert Bigelow wants to build separate stations that might be used as research laboratories orbiting Earth or to establish a permanent presence on the moon or Mars.

“Ultimately, he’s hoping to build hotels in low-earth orbit and have that be one of the up-and-coming space businesses, this will give him more credibility,” said Marco Caceres, a senior space analyst with Teal Group in Fairfax, Virginia. “There’s a lot of people out there that say, ‘Oh come on, hotels in low-earth orbit, that’s a fantasy right?’ I believe he has the tools to do it.”

The challenge will be finding customers, Caceres said. Bigelow’s primary focus is on corporations and governments interested in developing astronaut programs or doing research. Space tourism is secondary, and the company has tried to steer away from the space hotel label.

Nasa’s willingness to back the mission is a seal of approval, Bigelow Aerospace said in a press release scheduled for release today. “We cannot think of a stronger endorsement,” the company said. Bigelow, 68, and Nasa deputy administrator Lori Garver planned to discuss the mission during a press conference today at the company’s Las Vegas headquarters.

The agreement is “a step forward in cutting-edge technology that can allow humans to thrive in space safely and affordably,” Garver said in a January 11 release announcing the contract. Bigelow plans to introduce a stand-alone station that can accommodate as many as 12 people by 2016, the company said.

A flight to the planned Alpha Station would cost between $26.3 million and $36.8 million for a 60-day stay, “depending on the taxi selected”, according to the company. Customers could lease a portion of the station for that time period for $25 million. They could even purchase the naming rights to the entire station for a year for an additional $25 million.

The future of private space stations depends on businesses built by other companies. They include billionaire Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies, known as SpaceX, which in May 2012 became the first to dock a private cargo ship at the space station.

Nasa in August awarded $1.11 billion in contracts to develop private spacecraft capable of transporting crew. The awards went to Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX, Boeing, and Sparks. The agency plans to begin flying astronauts in at least one of the vehicles in 2017.

The first inflatable product designed to support crew will be launched in late 2015 aboard a Falcon 9 rocket made by SpaceX. The module, known as the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, will travel in the cargo hold of a Dragon spacecraft, also made by SpaceX, according to Bigelow.

Plans call for the module to remain attached to the space station for about two years. During that time, astronauts will monitor the unit’s temperature, pressure, radiation and other data to test the technology’s durability.

Hotelier Bigelow is the owner and president of Budget Suites of America, a closely held chain in Nevada, Arizona and Texas. He doesn’t reveal his net worth. He has committed about $500 million to his aerospace company, about half of which has been spent.

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