It's lighter, cheaper and better than an aluminum can, and a great example of appropriate design.
Last year we noted how well the BEAM bouncy castle in space was working out for NASA, and that it would stay part of the Space Station for a few more years. But now its builder Bigelow is thinking even bigger, and has started a new company, Bigelow Space Operations (BSO), to launch a private space station into low earth orbit. According to Mashable:
Bigelow said the company will launch two new capsules into space in 2021. The capsules, called B330, are designed to be self-sustaining, permanent structures that can be "ganged together" to form a larger station complex. One of the reasons is the proposal from the current administration to end funding for the International Space Station and turnout over to the private sector. It is very expensive to run, compared to Bigelow's designs.
As Bigelow notes, his inflatable modules are lighter, substantially less bulky, and cheaper to launch than traditional metal capsules. That's what is so intriguing to this TreeHugger; these inflatables are as resistant to space debris and radiation as a conventional metal space station module. Or as Bigelow noted earlier, “The aluminum cans are antiquated.”
In a press release, BSO announced very big plans:
With the two launches of B330-1 and B330-2 expected in 2021, the time is now in 2018 to begin BSO activity. 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.... Over time, Bigelow Aerospace will manufacture a single station, launched on a single rocket that will contain over 2.4 times the pressurized volume of the entire International Space Station.
Bigelow doesn't quite know what it will be used for, which is always a good thing to figure out before you launch. As noted in Mashable:
Along with the announcement of the 2021 launch, Bigelow said he's now hiring for and funding a multi-million dollar study to determine "what the hell a commercial market really looks like," in the coming years. In Bigelow's view, no one really knows. "The time is now to quantify in detail the global, national and corporate commercial space market for orbiting stations. This subject has had ambiguity for many years," a Bigelow statement reads.
And why is this on TreeHugger? The lessons it teaches about design that could apply on earth. I have written previously:
Inflatables are lighter, and take up a lot less space on the rocket, resulting in less fuel, less pollution and less cost. It is a lesson in minimalist design going right back to Bucky Fuller: What's the most efficient and lightest way to enclose a volume? A sphere, which is natural for an inflatable. And since everything in space is pressurized, it makes so much sense to put that air to work.
It is unlikely that we would make buildings on earth out of layers of Nextel (a woven ceramic fabric from 3M), Kevlar, foam and other fabrics, and many have found that round and spherical buildings don't work very well on earth. But in space, it is appropriate design, which is something that we need a lot more of on earth.