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Moon bounce 2.0: NASA announces plans for tests of inflatable space station expansion

Just in case the idea of living and working on the International Space Station doesn’t sound enough like a childhood dream come true, NASA announced on Wednesday that it was planning to test an idea that would please many an inner child more: Placing inflatable structures within the station. That’s right, soon, the space station will have its very own bouncy castle. Well, almost.

The structures in question are actually referred to as BEAMs, which stands for Bigelow Expandable Activity Modules; essentially, inflatable habitats that can be brought into space in deflated, easier-to-pack format then expanded to full-size at the appropriate time. The module is the creation of private company Bigelow Aerospace, and is constructed from several layers of fabric – including something called Vectran, a bullet-resistant polymer – and coated with shielding foil similar to the kind used to encase hard spacecraft material.

Although the actual BEAMs are designed and manufactured by Bigelow, the idea behind it is actually NASA’s; more than a decade ago, the organization was considering the possibility of constructing inflatable crew quarters onboard the space station, but the plan was abandoned as costs continued to grow and Congress pulled funding for the project. Bigelow then licensed the concept from NASA and put $250 million of the company’s money into exploring and researching whether it could work in reality, leading to multiple prototypes and even two unmanned tests in orbit to ensure the BEAM’s staying power in its intended environment.

Now, NASA is planning on taking the testing to the next level. Current plans call for the BEAM to be taken to the International Space Station in 2015 on board the eighth SpaceX cargo resupply mission, where it will be attached via robot arm to the aft port of the Tranquility node and inflated for a two-year test period. During that time, engineers both aboard the station and on the ground will monitor the BEAM’s performance, including its stability and potential leak rate. An instrumentation will also be embedded within the actual module to provide additional information about how well it is standing up to (lack of) atmospheric pressures, such as radiation and potential temperature changes. At the end of the two-year test cycle, the BEAM will be disconnected from the space station and is expected to burn up during re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere.

Announcing NASA’s program, Deputy Administrator Lori Garver said, “Today we’re demonstrating progress on a technology that will advance important long-duration human spaceflight goals,” adding that the partnership between Bigelow and NASA “opens a new chapter in our continuing work to bring the innovation of industry to space, heralding cutting-edge technology that can allow humans to thrive in space safely and affordably.”

The additional benefits of giving astronauts somewhere to play in when outer space is getting a little boring is, of course, just another sweet perk.

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