In Space, A Room That Can Be Folded Like A Shirt

NORTH LAS VEGAS (TIP): An inflatable space pod to be attached to the International Space Station in a couple of years will be like no other piece of the station. Instead of metal, its walls will be made of floppy cloth, making it easier to launch (and then inflate). Nasa said it had signed a $17.8 million contract with Bigelow Aerospace to build the module, which could reach the space station as soon as 2015.

That is a bargain-basement price compared with most equipment the US and other countries send into space, and the Bigelow agreement could serve as a model for how Nasa puts together missions at lower costs by using a Kmart strategy: buying offtheshelf pieces instead of developing its own designs. “This programme starts a relationship that we think, and we hope, is going to be meaningful between Nasa and ourselves,” Robert T Bigelow, the chief executive of Bigelow Aerospace, said at a news conference here at the company’s headquarters.

Low-Earth orbit, he said, is the “first target,” but larger modules could be used for stations in deep space or for habitats on the Moon. “We have ambitions to get to the Moon someday, to have a base there,” Bigelow said.The fold-up , blow-up approach solves the conundrum of how to build something voluminous that can be packed into the narrow payload confines of a rocket.

The soft sides of the module , called the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or Beam, will allow it to be scrunched like a Tshirt in a suitcase. At the space station, it will be attached to an air lock and then inflated like a balloon and expanded by a factor of 10 to its full size — about 13 feet long and 10 feet in diameter, with about 560 cubic feet of space inside.

At least initially, it will remain empty as Nasa gathers data about its characteristics, including temperature and protection against micrometeorites. The balloonlike structure is carefully designed not to pop.

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The fabric walls will consist of several layers including Vectran , a bulletresistant material. Even if punctured by a highspeed meteorite, the fabric does not tear. A hole in a metal structure in space, by comparison, can cause explosive decompression as air rushes out. When the Beam module reaches the space station, astronauts might go to it to seek solitude: engineers expect it will be the quietest spot there.

The fabric walls absorb sound vibrations instead of transmitting them. Beam revives a concept that Nasa developed more than a decade ago for an inflatable four-story crew quarters on the space station. Congress halted the work as the station’s construction costs grew sharply.

Bigelow licensed the technology from Nasa and set up his factory in North Las Vegas, investing over $250 million of his own money. The company has already launched two unmanned prototypes into orbit, showing that they can remain inflated for years.

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