Updated Thursday, January 17, 2013 at 09:31 AM
LAS VEGAS — NASA is partnering with a commercial space company in a bid to replace the cumbersome “metal cans” that serve as astronauts’ homes in space with inflatable bounce-house-like habitats that can be deployed on the cheap.
A $17.8 million test project will send an inflatable room that can be compressed into a 7-foot tube for delivery to the international-space station, officials said Wednesday at North Las Vegas-based Bigelow Aerospace.
If the module proves durable during two years at the space station, it could help lead to habitats on the moon and the missions to Mars, NASA engineer Glen Miller said.
The agency chose Bigelow for the contract because it was the only company working on the inflatable technology, said NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver.
Founder and president Robert Bigelow, who made his fortune in the hotel industry and framed the space-station proposal as an out-of-this-world real-estate venture, also hopes to sell his spare-tire habitats to companies and wealthy adventurers looking for space hotels.
NASA is expected to install the 10-foot-diameter, blimplike module by 2015 at the space station.
In 2016, Bigelow plans to begin selling inflatable space stations to countries looking to increase their presence in space.
Miller says the new technology provides more room than existing options and is quicker and cheaper to build.
Once inflated, the habitat will be safer than the aluminum modules now in orbit, he said.
Artist renderings of the module resemble a large tinfoil clown nose stuck onto the main station.
It is hardly large enough to be called a room.
Miller described it as a large closet with padded white walls and gear and gizmos strung from two central beams.
Garver said Wednesday that sending a small inflatable tube into space will be dramatically cheaper than launching a full-sized module.
“Let’s face it; the most expensive aspect of taking things in space is the launch,” she said. “So the magnitude of importance of this for NASA really can’t be overstated.”
Garver said Wednesday that it will be much cheaper to send a small inflatable tube into space than a full-sized module.
Astronauts will test the habitat’s ability to withstand heat, radiation, debris and other assaults.
Bigelow will rely on Boeing and Southern California rocket developer Space Exploration Technologies to provide transportation.
This artist's rendering provided by Bigelow Aerospace shows a Bigelow inflatable space station. NASA is partnering with this commercial space company to test an inflatable room that can be compressed into a 7-foot tube for delivery to the International Space Station. NASA is expected to install the module by 2015.
JULIE JACOBSON / AP
Pictured here is a one third scale model of the BA 330 module, a different module similar in function to what the new Bigelow Expandable Activity Module will be.