NASA To Test Balloon-Like 'Space-Homes'

First Posted: Jan 20, 2013 06:04 PM EST

NASA has signed a $17.8 million contract with Bigelow Aerospace, a firm based near Las Vegas, to build an inflatable habitat that could be added to the space station by 2015.

The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, nicknamed BEAM, will be the third orbital prototype developed and flown by privately owned Bigelow Aerospace. The test project will cost $17.8 million and it will send an inflatable room to the International Space Station which can be compressed into a 7-foot tube for delivery, officials said Wednesday in a news conference at North Las Vegas-based Bigelow Aerospace, according to the Associated Press.

The agency chose Bigelow for the contract because it was the only company working on inflatable technology, said NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver.

Robert Bigelow, Budget Suites of America entrepreneur and space enthusiast, has for years been pushing the idea that space stations should be made out of fabric and not metal.  He hopes to sell his spare tire habitats to scientific companies and wealthy adventurers looking for space hotels.

When Bigelow says "inflatable," don't think of something like a balloon. The outer skin has multiple layers, some of them made of bulletproof Vectran fibers. It might have a little give, but it would be as tough as snow tires. Bigelow has suggested that micrometeoroids might actually bounce off instead of puncturing a ship's metal walls.

Bigelow has invested about $250 million in inflatable habitation modules so far. It has preliminary agreements with seven non-U.S. space and research agencies in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Australia, Singapore, Japan, Sweden and the United Arab Emirates.

"The value to me personally and to our company is doing a project with NASA," Robert Bigelow said. "This is our first opportunity to do that. We do have other ambitions."

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