Humans Could Soon Use Giant Fabric Balloons to Explore Space

Hotel mogul Robert Bigelow hopes to launch a giant inflatable space station on a single rocket in 2021 with nearly two-and-a-half times the pressurized volume of the International Space Station.

Expanding on the development work of Bigelow Aerospace, a new company—Bigelow Space Operations (BSO)—has been launched to manage and operate the fabric station, which will be called “B330.”

Bigelow made his fortune as owner of hotel chain Budget Suites of America and went on to found Bigelow Aerospace in 1999.

2_21_Bigelow expandable tech NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, William Gerstenmaier, and director of NASA's advanced exploration systems division, Jason Crusan, view the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) at Bigelow’s facility in Las Vegas on March 12, 2015. The new stations will build on this inflatable fabric technology. NASA/Public Domain

Inflatable fabric layers

B330 will be made of condensed layers of soft fabrics that inflate in space. BSO envisages one rocket will take an entire station into space, followed by a crew who will expand the fabric into a functional habitat, Fox News reports.

The expanded unit would provide living and research quarters for six people, 12 ecosystems and 330 cubic meters (11650 cubic feet) of space—hence the name.

“These single structures that house humans on a permanent basis will be the largest, most complex structures ever known as stations for human use in space,” the new company said in a press statement.

Protection against radiation and space junk

A fabric shell might sound flimsy, but the technology could actually fare better against micrometeoroid space junk than the “aluminum cans” on the ISS, Fox News reports. The shell also provides a degree of protection from radiation and other dangers of the space environment.

In fact, Bigelow Aerospace has already successfully latched a smaller fabric-based unit onto the the ISS. A SpaceX Dragon capsule sent the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) to the station in April 2016. Astronaut Jeff Williams entered the module for the first time that June.

NASA hopes the ongoing BEAM mission will aid the development of affordable expandable habitable structures as part of the agency’s plan to send humans to Mars.

BEAM's expansion sped up. NASA

BSO plans to launch B330-1 and B330-2 in 2021. In the meantime, it will concentrate its efforts—and millions of dollars—on trying to map the global demand for orbiting space stations.

The stations wouldn’t just be for U.S. government use, Bigelow anticipates the new company will help other countries develop their space programs, and envisages a “huge” corporation market, Fox News reported.

BSO has already announced a partnership with the Center of Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) to help deliver payloads to the ISS National Laboratory.

Commercial space exploration

The launch of BSO is hot on the heels of recent news the Trump administration wants to turn the International Space Station into a privately-funded enterprise from 2025.

“The decision to end direct federal support for the ISS in 2025 does not imply that the platform itself will be deorbited at that time—it is possible that industry could continue to operate certain elements or capabilities of the ISS as part of a future commercial platform,” read a NASA document obtained by the Washington Post.

At 10 a.m. ET Wednesday, Vice President Mike Pence will chair a National Space Council meeting at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. According to a NASA statement, the meeting will cover both civil and commercial aspects of the country's space enterprise.

The meeting will be available on the NASA TV between 10 a.m. and 12 p.m. ET.