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NASA's big balloon room will cost about $17.8 million to build and send to space. (Courtesy Bigelow Aerospace)

A Balloon Room in Space

The International Space Station is building inflatable housing for astronauts

By Jack Silbert | April 24 , 2013

People sometimes add an extra room or two onto their house. Now the American space agency NASA is planning to do a similar thing more than 200 miles above Earth—only it’s adding a room built inside a giant balloon.

In January, NASA announced that it plans to attach an inflatable “spare room” to the International Space Station, or ISS, in 2015. The ISS is a science laboratory shared by the United States, Russia, Japan, and countries in Europe. It has orbited Earth for more than 12 years.

NASA is working with a company called Bigelow Aerospace on the project, which will cost about $17.8 million. The “room” is known as the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM.

The whole room will weigh about 3,000 pounds, which is actually much lighter than the usual modules made from aluminum. Because BEAM is so light, it will cost much less to launch into outer space than previous room modules sent to the ISS.

NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver says, “Let’s face it, the most expensive aspect of taking things [into] space is the launch.” She describes BEAM as “cutting-edge technology that can allow humans to thrive in space safely and affordably.”

FLOATING IN SPACE

BEAM is constructed from layers of strong high-tech fabric. It will be folded up, placed inside the nose of a rocket, and then shot into space. When the rocket arrives at the ISS, astronauts will use the station’s robotic arm to grab BEAM and attach it to the side of the space station. Then NASA will inflate BEAM. At full size, the module is about 13 feet long and 10.5 feet across.

NASA will test BEAM for two years, making sure it is strong enough, can withstand different temperatures, and doesn’t spring a leak. Astronauts aboard the ISS will assist with this monitoring. If the testing is successful, BEAMs could play very important roles in future NASA missions, helping humans stay in space for long periods.

Meanwhile, Bigelow Aerospace plans to launch two more modules into space in 2016. These could be rented by governments and businesses and used as orbiting science labs.

The company’s founder, Robert Bigelow, is a hotel owner, so space vacations may very well be a future use. But better start saving your allowance now: A two-month rental of the module is projected to cost more than $26 million.

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