We thought we’d be living in space (or under giant domes) by now
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The International Space Station is known for a clear lack of personal space. Crews are packed into phone booth-sized beds. They are hit by nonstop light, sound and surveillance. But the station could soon be a bit roomier. It also may be more relaxing. That's if things go right during an upcoming SpaceX resupply mission.
After the Dragon capsule reaches the station, the ISS's robot arm will pull out a device. It's called the Bigelow Aerospace Expandable Activity Module. It is better known as BEAM. With it, the future of housing might just change forever.
The module is 13 feet long. Bigelow Aerospace and NASA are calling it an "expandable habitat." But to the average viewer, it will look more like a big white balloon. Think of it as a kind of spare room. Only this one will cost NASA a cool $17.8 million. BEAM will arrive in space uninflated. It will blow up once it's attached to one of the station's nodes. That will create a new, if not entirely expansive section of the ISS.
"I jokingly refer to it as a largish New York apartment," says Mike Gold. New York apartments are known for being small. Gold is director of D.C. operations and business growth for Bigelow Aerospace. BEAM isn't intended for use as living quarters, he notes. Instead, it will serve as a proof of concept for expandable habitats.
Gold sees another benefit to the module. It will provide a bit of peace and quiet.
"Acoustically, it's going to be the quietest location aboard the International Space Station," he says. Will astronauts use it as a break from the always-on environment of the bigger station? That's unclear. In a release, NASA says only that the station will be measured and tested over time.
Gold thinks the module has the potential as a place for science experiments. It could also be used for stowage and other activities. The concept has been tested before. In 2006 and 2007, the company launched the Genesis I and II missions. Expandable habitats headed into orbit via converted Russian ICBMs.
The limited plans for the habitat are a far cry from the "space hotel" label. It has long been associated with the company. Bigelow Aerospace is owned by hotelier and real estate mogul Robert Bigelow. His plans to take his empire to space have been the topic of rumors since he launched the company. He launched it in 1998.
That space hotel moniker irritates Gold. He calls it a "pernicious misconception." Gold says tourism is just part of the company's long-term plan. The term has been in use since the module that inspired Bigelow Aerospace's current projects. It is a NASA-designed inflatable crew quarters project. It's known as TransHab.
But TransHab turned out to be just a pipe dream. The project's funding was cut in 2000. It never left the ground. Bigelow snatched up NASA's patent rights. He used them to develop the technology.
If BEAM isn't a space hotel, the company's next project sure seems like one. Now that BEAM is ready to deploy, the company is perfecting the B330. It's an even larger expandable habitat. It could be used for housing. It could also be used for research and development. And it could be used for astronaut training.
The B330 got its name for its 330 cubic meters of internal space. But unlike BEAM, it is a completely independent module. It doesn't need to hook up to the International Space Station. It can support a crew of up to six.
B330s can even be hooked up to one another. They could form free-floating commercial stations like Alpha Station. Alpha is a proposed space station. Bigelow Aerospace claims it could help nations develop their astronaut corps, perfect space travel and conduct research.
On its website, the company says it will offer things like one-off astronaut flights. The cost will be $26.75 million to $36.75 million per seat. The company also may lease space station space. The cost will be $25 million for exclusive use of a school bus-sized space. The lease would be over a two-month period. The naming rights to Alpha Station will cost about $25 million a year. Gold downplays the idea of space tourism. But he doesn't discount it entirely.
There are still challenges. Right now, the company relies on commercial resupply missions to get its smaller modules into orbit. Those missions are launched by companies like SpaceX.
However, commercial rockets are small. Many don't have enough power to launch the 20-ton B330. Bigelow notes that it designed that unit to fly on an Atlas V rocket. The Atlas V is a dependable vehicle. It has a launch capacity of just over 40,000 pounds.
To get its more ambitious habitats off the ground, Bigelow Aerospace will probably need a rocket like NASA's upcoming Space Launch System, or SLS. The SLS will have an eventual lift capacity of 286,000 pounds.
Are expandable space stations (hotels or otherwise) the buildings of the future? Perhaps. Some people may ditch the idea of space tourism and become full-time space residents. Perhaps they would live in structures like Bigelow's Olympus.
Some may flee Earth due to overpopulation. There's an 80 percent chance that the world's population will grow to around 11 billion. That could occur by the end of this century.
And then there's the cool factor. Some people may find that they simply prefer to live in microgravity surrounded by great views of planets and stars all the time.
Commercial space projects are prone to funding issues. They also see delays and development traffic jams. Any of those could send the most optimistic predictions for the future of travel and housing right back to Earth. And for every futuristic habitat success, there are many projects that have stalled. Or they have been greatly changed.
What do you think the future of living in space will look like?