Inflatable space structures can be traced back to the earliest days of NASA. The simplest way to visualize these expandable objects is to think of a packed tent that pops open once in space. Inflatables take up far less space on rockets than solid, prefabricated structures, yet they are vulnerable to small meteors and space debris that can puncture their outer shell.
To ensure maximum protection, multiple layers wrap around inflatables using the same materials found in bullet-proof vests. Rigorous testing ensures the structure does not slowly deform or deflate over time. Below we’ll take a look at some of the achievements in inflatable technology.
1960 – Echo 1
A disco-ball in space. The shiny, aluminum coated, Echo 1 pioneered satellite communication technology on Earth.
Echo 1 was an inflatable balloon placed into low Earth orbit by the telecommunication company AT&T and used to send the first spoken words through space. Referred to at the time as ‘The Big Bounce’, voice recordings of US President Eisenhower were broadcast from New Jersey, bounced off the Echo balloon and received in California.
1961 – Goodyear Space Station. It may come as a surprise, but in the 1960’s tire company Goodyear were quite prolific in space technologies.
A Goodyear Blimp… in space?
NASA commissioned Goodyear to develop a prototype space station. Resembling a doughnut, the inflatable station could house two astronauts. Plagued by durability issues, including the possibility of an astronaut ripping through the tube, NASA shelved the project, redirecting its focus on the Apollo Moon missions.
1965 – Voskhod-2
As the world watched in awe as the first ever astronaut stepped out into space, the milestone also celebrated the first manned inflatable spacecraft. The Soviet’s Voskhod-2 included an inflatable, cylinder shaped air-lock that allowed the astronaut to float through and perform the first ever spacewalk.
1970’s – Space inflatables stagnated as NASA became preoccupied with the newly launched (non-inflatable) space-station, Skylab.
1984 – Vega Venus Missions
For the first time, Earth balloons visited another planet. After landing on Venus, the Soviet spacecraft Vega deployed two helium balloons that floated through the atmosphere for 46 hours. The 4m balloons collected data on the chemical composition of Venus’s atmosphere.
1990s – TransHab (Transit Habitat)
In the early 90s, NASA started planning for a successor to the International Space Station (ISS). While the ISS keeps a stable orbit around earth, the new station would also serve as a spaceship, providing living quarters for astronauts on long duration flights, specifically to Mars.
The proposed design, TransHab, was an inflated station, favored for its compact prelaunch size and its thick exterior shell that protected astronauts from radiation and solar flares.
In 1998, under pressure to reduce the NASA budget, US Congress pulled the pin on the TransHab project.
2002 – Robert Bigelow, a Las Vegas hotel tycoon with deep pockets and a deep passion for Space, approached NASA with an offer to purchase the plans and patents for TransHab. Handing over an initial check for $400,000, Bigelow continued to invested many millions into his new enterprise, Bigelow Aerospace. For the first time, an excited public imagined space tourists checking in to a orbiting hotel.
2006 – Bigelow Aerospace – Genesis 1
Bigelow Aerospace launches their first space inflatable in 2006, the Genesis 1. Shaped like a watermelon, the 4.5m x 3m habitat still orbits Earth today and is expected to burn up in the atmosphere by 2019. Included in the Genesis 1 were experiments with cockroaches and Mexican jumping beans.
2007 – Genesis 2 by Bigelow Aerospace is launched. Identical in size to the first build, the Genesis 2 saw improvements in the guidance control system, additional cameras and larger gas tanks to ensure a smoother expansion of the module. For a fee, the public could send photographs and other personal items to fly inside the habitat.
2009 – NASA HIAD (Hypersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator)
NASA begins testing an inflatable heat shield to protect and slow down crafts on re-entry to Earth. The shield is particularly useful for returning cargo from the ISS ..and has even been considered for safely delivering an asteroid to Earth. NASA is researching scalable heat shields for use in other planets, namely Mars, Venus and Titan.
2011 – Russian space company, RKK Energia, unveiled designs for an inflatable habitat to retrofit the ISS. The project is still in the design phase and the company is expecting to build a small scale prototype by 2015.
2015 – Bigelow Aerospace BEAM ( Bigelow Expandable Activity Module)
NASA has approved an extension to the International Space Station using a Bigelow Aerospace inflatable module. The attachment is to be completed in 2015 for the sole purpose of testing and feasibility, that is, the astronauts will not live full-time inside the Bigelow habitat.
2016 – Inspiration Mars
Billionaire Investment banker (and space tourist) Dennis Tito announced an ambitious plan to send 2 astronauts around the orbit of Mars in 2016. Whilst details of the project are not fully disclosed, the concept illustration depicts an inflatable habitat attached to the spacecraft.
2016 and beyond. It has taken many decades for inflatables to be recognized as a safe and financially viable medium for space travel. Advances in materials and a commitment from private enterprise has rejuvenated interest in this technology. Today, it looks promising that the first ever orbiting hotel will be an inflatable living space.