Last week, NASA inflated the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) that was flown to the International Space Station on board a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on April 8th. After an aborted attempt to inflate it on May 26th, it was fully deployed and pressurized on the 28th. Now, for the first time in history, an astronaut has entered an inflatable spacecraft. BEAM will be tested for two years to determine the technology’s feasibility for more operational use. Inflatable space craft component represent a potentially superior technology to take astronauts on long haul missions.
Inflatables Have More Volume per Mass
The planned operational Bigelow module is the B330. The 330 stands for the 330 cubic meters of inter volume a single module provides. In the manned spacecraft world, that’s a lot. To put it in perspective, the Destiny module of the ISS is 160 cubic meters. In real world sizes, it has the same volume as a 1500 square foot house (with 8 foot ceilings). At more than 210% the size of Destiny, its mass is only 33% more. Since mass tends to be the limiting factor in space travel, or more specifically launching from Earth, the technology represents the most efficient available.
Inflatables Are Actually Stronger Than Rigid Spacecraft
A common myth about inflatable habs is that they are less robust than rigid spacecraft with aluminum skin. That’s not true. Another myth is that they will pop like a balloon if punctured. Also not true. The “hull” thickness of the B330 will be 18 inches made up of layered materials that provide superior ballistic and radiation protection to current rigid spacecraft. The walls of the Destiny module are made up of layers of Kevlar and ceramic fabrics under an aluminum skin.
The B330 Could Be the Best Bet for Getting to Mars
A lot of plans are in the mix to get humans to Mars. Bigelow Aerospace wants to be a part of those plans with its B330. With so much volume taken up by cargo, space is at a premium for long range missions. Being able to blow up a room makes a lot of sense. If the BEAM passes all its tests, you can be sure the B330 will be part of Mars discussion.
Image credit: Bigelow Aerospace, NASA