“Whether you’re going to the surface of the moon or even Mars, the benefits of expandable habitats are critical for any exploration mission,” Gold said.
The lightweight, soft-skinned inflatable, made of materials similar to Kevlar, has several advantages over traditional metallic space dwellings. BEAM, for example, weighs about 3,000 pounds (1 ,361 kg), l ess than a third of traditional, similarly sized space modules, so it can be launched for a fraction of the cost.
It also offers a potentially safer radiation environment than metal structures, which can produce body-piercing secondary heavy particles during solar storms and other cosmic radiation events.
The U.S. space agency studied inflatable space habitats for humans in the 1990s under a NASA program called TransHab. The tests included blasting a model structure with bullet-like projectiles to see how well it would withstand micro meteoroid and orbital debris hits. The material proved space-worthy, though budget and political issues prompted the project’s cancellation in 2000.
Bigelow later licensed the technology from NASA and spent millions of dollars more to develop it.
“It’s one of our classical roles to advance technology so the private sector can utilize it. In this case, we’re going to be able to benefit from it again,” said NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver.
BEAM will be attached to the station’s Tranquility connecting node and inflated with pressurized air to form a rigid, cylinder-shaped, balloon-like dwelling.
Garver said there are no firm plans for what the station’s six live-aboard crew members will do with their spare room.