NASA Shells Out $17.8 Million For A Giant Bubble That Attaches To The ISS

Bigelow Aerospace ModuleAn inflatable space module prototype at the Bigelow Aerospace factory in Las Vegas.

Photo: NASA/Bill Ingalls

NASA announced on Friday that it would grant a $17.8 million contract to Bigelow Aerospace to develop an inflatable space habitat that attaches to the International Space Station. Founded by Robert T. Bigelow in 1999, Bigelow Aerospace makes “affordable options for spaceflight to national space agencies and corporate clients,” according to the company’s website

The space agency has been discussing a potential partnership with Bigelow Aersospace for its expandable habitats for a couple of years. In a 2010 interview with The New York Times, Bigelow said he was willing to spend up to $500 million of his own money to make inflatable space stations a reality. He had already spent $180 million out of pocket at that point. 

NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver toured Bigelow’s Las Vegas factory in 2011, where he saw a mock-up of an expandable spacecraft called Sundancer. 

Bigelow already has two expandable habitat prototypes in space. Genesis I was launched in July 2006 and Geneis II was launched in June 2007. They are both still in orbit. The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM, that will attach to the ISS will probably be similar. 

One big advantage of inflatable habitats is their size. These expandable spacecrafts, which are tightly packed at launch and then inflate in space, are designed to hold more astronauts than the ISS, which currently supports a crew of six. Although few details about the BEAM have been released, it’s likely that the module will be used as storage space for the scientific equipment.  

More information about the spacecraft will be discussed at a press conference at Bigelow’s Las Vegas headquarters on Wednesday, Jan. 16.

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