Space mission to test billionaire’s plan for astronauts to live in a bubble

Space mission to test billionaire’s plan for astronauts to live in a bubble

Rocket taking off from Cape Canaveral on Friday will carry Robert Bigelows new inflatable module that could point the way to the future of space habitation

Subject to the delays, misfires and explosions common to rocketry, long-stay motel entrepreneur Robert Bigelow will soon get an opportunity to test his latest innovation: an inflatable living module in space.

On Friday, an unmanned SpaceX Falcon rocket is set to take off from Cape Canaveral for the International Space Station orbiting Earth. In its payload will be an inflatable module made of a kevlar-like material that could point the way to the future of space habitation.

The plan is to inflate the Beam (Bigelow Expandable Activity Module), and test it over a two-year period to see how it stands up to the extreme environment of space, if it leaks, and how the impact of high-speed space junk and micrometeorites circling the planet affects it.

Once inflated, astronauts aboard the space station should be able to venture into the balloon that its creators hope will be the first step towards expandable manned habitats in space.

Were hoping this gets us a foot in the door, Bigelow, founder of Budget Suites of America, told the Washington Post earlier this week.

The 70-year-old entrepreneur told the paper he had invested $290m of his fortune into the technology. If it proves workable, Bigelow believes it could make habitats on the moon or beyond.

The current Beam, fully expanded, grows to 10.5 feet wide and 565 feet cubed, roughly the size of an eight-person tent. But thats just the start: the company is already planning a space blimp 20 times larger that will be ready for testing in 2020.

Robert Bigelow, founder and president of Bigelow Aerospace, has invested $290m in the project. Photograph: John Raoux/AP

That design, the B330, is designed to fit a crew of six comfortably, with walls 18in thick, solar and thermal radiator arrays, semi-private berths, a zero-G toilet, four windows and two sets of control thrusters.

The concept of expandable architecture is credited to Nasa engineers looking at the challenge of creating living environments large enough to sustain crews on a passage to Mars.

Nasa dropped the TransHab concept, though it still supports the idea that manned Mars missions will require several rockets filled with cargo and supplies [that] will be deployed to await the crews arrival.

Bigelow Aerospace came up with two working prototypes that were launched into orbit on Russian rockets 10 years ago. The modules are still in orbit. Bigelow says he is confident there will be a market for the design and has already been in talks with commercial companies and foreign governments.

Its not as though there isnt a demand, he told the Post. Weve had a lot of conversations with different countries, and we know they are potentially customers for us.

But while the plan places Bigelow, who apparently believes in the existence of aliens You simply cant know unless youre out there, he said in the company of better-known space billionaires of the New Space Movement, including Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Paul Allen and Richard Branson, he, too, is dependent on serviceable rockets.

Beam is due to be ferried to ISS by Musks SpaceX from Cape Canaveral air force station in Florida. The last shot by a similar SpaceX rocket, a Falcon 9, exploded after lift-off in June last year. The company said it will attempt a second feat: landing the booster on a floating platform at sea, part of a quest to reuse rockets and lower the cost of spaceshots.

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