Bigelow Aerospace’s Inflatable Space Station

Inflatable expansion modules extend astronauts’ space.
Source: NASA

Form and function
The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM, is a 565-cubic-foot addition to the International Space Station designed to test expandable-space-station tech. It was carried aloft by a SpaceX Dragon cargo ship in April.

Innovator: Robert Bigelow
Founder and chief executive officer of Bigelow Aerospace, a 130-employee company in North Las Vegas.
Age: 72

Illustration: 731

1. Launch
Bigelow’s expandable station modules are made of as many as 30 layers of high-strength fabric, including Kevlar. They take up 127 cubic feet when compressed for launch.

Expandable habitat technology began as part of NASA’s TransHab program. After the program was canceled in 2000, Bigelow, a hotelier, began working to commercialize the technology.

Illustration: 731

2. Inflate
Once in orbit, the modules fill with air from onboard tanks to expand to their intended size. The fabric resists impacts from micrometeoroids and debris more effectively than standard aluminum designs.

Bigelow says he’s invested about $290 million in his company. NASA contracted with him to develop BEAM for $17.8 million.

Bigelow plans to charge $25 million for two to three months’ use of each third of a module.

Bigelow Aerospace is in talks with NASA to add a 12,000-cubic-foot commercial module to the ISS and with individual nations and corporations to lease more free-flying modules.

Next Steps
Astronauts will inflate BEAM in late May for a two-year test. Bigelow plans to launch a pair of commercial modules in 2020. Given the finite storage in a rocket, “you get a lot more living space with an inflatable,” says Jeffrey Hoffman, a former NASA astronaut and professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT. And in a collision with space debris, he says, “an inflatable could actually be more survivable.”

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