On April 10 the inflatable module known as the Bigelow Bungalow arrived at the International Space Station (ISS).
The official name for the module is the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), and it will be installed on the ISS later this week. The inflatable module could one day be used to house astronauts in space.
Bigelow Bungalow could drive space exploration
BEAM could one day have a great impact on the future of space habitation and exploration. Bigelow Aerospace, the company which built the module, and SpaceX, which delivered it, are both prime examples of the impact of private space enterprises on innovation.
The module also shows that public-private partnerships can achieve great things in space, and shows that NASA’s strategy to commercialize space is working. If anything it looks like future space exploration will rely heavily on these partnerships.
BEAM itself is an inflatable habitat, the idea of which was first floated in the early 1960s. According to NASA: “this design actually made it out of the concept phase and into production, though no models were ever flown.”
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The space agency also dreamed up inflatable lunar bases and later worked on the Transhab concept. The latter was supposed to work as a living module on Mars missions before morphing into potential accommodation on the ISS.
Larger module to be tested in 2019
Bigelow is also set to develop a B330 Habitat that will offer 330 cubic meters of space compared to 160 cubic meters on the ISS module. The idea is to use inflatable modules to provide living space on deep space missions.
Bigelow technology is not restricted by the launch capabilities of launch rockets as it only inflates on arrival. Two B330 habitats will be launched in 2019 and 2020 under the terms of a contract signed between Bigelow and United Launch Alliance.
However Robert Bigelow says that the company is “exploring options for the location of the initial B330 including discussions with NASA on the possibility of attaching it to the International Space Station (ISS).”
At some stage it is thought that the B330 will be tested independently in low-Earth orbit, with the ultimate aim of supporting lunar and Martian missions. In this case it looks like private-public partnerships have been a success, but there could be potholes down the road.
Commercial companies obviously need to turn a profit, and there could end up being friction between nations concerned about the commercialization of space. Under the Outer Space Treaty the area had been declared the “province of mankind.”
Some people might not be too happy about NASA encouraging companies to profit from this province.