Living conditions aboard space stations have always been cramped and uncomfortable. Aboard the ISS, for example, there isn’t enough room to swing Schrödinger’s hypothetical cat. But this might be about to change with the introduction of inflatable space station modules. Launching inflatable structures into space might sound like a crazy idea, but inflatable designs have already been tested, and they may soon be put into long-term operation.
The idea of creating inflatable segments for spacecraft was first proposed by NASA as part of their concept for a manned mission to Mars. The TransHab concept consists of a traditional cylindrical module with an inflatable exterior shell. The inflatable area provides extra living space for the crew. The module is launched inside a rocket as usual. It then expands and inflates once in orbit, as breathable atmosphere is pumped inside.
NASA never completed their TransHab module, but it would have been 8.2 meters in diameter (almost twice that of the modules used by the ISS) and devided into three levels of leg-stretching luxury.
The TransHab concept was reluctantly dropped by NASA in 2000 for reasons of cost, but the concept was bought by Bigelow Aerospace. The private company continued to develop the design and has since launched the Genesis I (in 2006) and Genesis II (in 2007) modules to test the viability of inflatable space modules. They are now planning to begin construction of their own inflatable space station – referred to as “Space Complex Alpha” – based on the TransHab concept. Construction could begin as early as 2014, and it is hoped that space inside the station will be available to rent from 2015. Several governments have expressed an interest, including the UK, Australia, Sweden and Japan.
The Future of Inflatable Space Flight
Space Complex Alpha, the first Bigalow commercial space station, will consist of two “Sundancer” inflatable modules and a larger “BA-330” module. The company hopes that this will become a model for future space stations. Construction of a second station – “Space Complex Bravo” – is already scheduled for 2016, using four BA-330 modules. They also plan to construct an “Advanced Medical Facility” using nine of the BA-330 modules.
The company also has ambitions beyond near-Earth orbit, with plans to launch a “Deep Space Complex” and even a mission to Mars. Their most ambitious use of the inflatable modules, however, may come in the form of a Moon base. This project – dubbed “Lunar Depot Ares” – would involve landing three BA-330 modules onto the lunar surface. It would provide living space for twelve astronauts.