A North Las Vegas aerospace firm has received an $18 million contract from NASA to test space-habitat technology.
NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver announced today that Bigelow Aerospace will provide a Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM, to the International Space Station.
The BEAM is an inflatable room that can be compressed into a 7-foot tube. If it proves durable, it could help lead to space stations on the moon and missions to Mars.
The 10-foot-diameter, blimp-like module is expected to arrive at the orbiting laboratory in 2015 for a two-year test period. It is slated to launch during a NASA-contracted SpaceX cargo resupply mission and be installed with the space station’s robotic arm.
If the test is successful, Bigelow plans to begin selling inflatable space stations in 2016 to countries looking to increase their presence in the heavens. NASA engineer Glen Miller said the new technology provides three times as much room as existing options and is far cheaper.
Astronauts will gather periodic data and perform inspections on the BEAM. Ground engineers will help with the analysis, gauging the module’s structural integrity and leak rate, among other things.
When the test period ends, the module will be jettisoned from the station, burning up on re-entry, NASA said.
Garver and Bigelow Aerospace founder Robert T. Bigelow outlined the $17.8 million contract today at the company’s headquarters.
“NASA’s partnership with Bigelow 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,” Garver said in a statement.
The space station, about the size of a football field, weighs almost 862,000 pounds. Aerospace officials from around the world use it to test long-duration spaceflight technology.