Skip to Content

Inflatable Habitats

February 22, 2011

Humans don’t like to be cramped, but it’s always been hard to fit large spacecraft or station modules on top of narrow rockets. In the 1960s NASA flew a satellite made of a flexible material that folded up tightly on top of the launcher. In orbit, the satellite was inflated to a diameter of over 30 meters. That could have become the basis for space station designs, but the concept fell by the wayside.

NASA revived the idea in the 1990s, when it was looking for ways to build a crew dormitory for the International Space Station. The agency hoped to build an inflatable shell made of layers of advanced materials, including Kevlar, packed together for insulation and strength; the result would protect against micrometeorites and space debris at least as well as a traditional metal module. Development was cancelled in 2000, but in 2004 Bigelow Aerospace bought exclusive rights to the technology, and two years later it launched an unmanned prototype habitat. It is still in orbit, collecting data on the module’s long-term viability. Another prototype was launched in 2007. The company plans to start building a commercial space station made from inflatable modules in 2014, and it has a partnership with Boeing to provide transport to and from the station.

While Bigelow’s development program continues, NASA is researching and testing designs suitable for human missions to the moon or Mars.

Keep Reading

Most Popular

transplant surgery
transplant surgery

The gene-edited pig heart given to a dying patient was infected with a pig virus

The first transplant of a genetically-modified pig heart into a human may have ended prematurely because of a well-known—and avoidable—risk.

open sourcing language models concept
open sourcing language models concept

Meta has built a massive new language AI—and it’s giving it away for free

Facebook’s parent company is inviting researchers to pore over and pick apart the flaws in its version of GPT-3

Muhammad bin Salman funds anti-aging research
Muhammad bin Salman funds anti-aging research

Saudi Arabia plans to spend $1 billion a year discovering treatments to slow aging

The oil kingdom fears that its population is aging at an accelerated rate and hopes to test drugs to reverse the problem. First up might be the diabetes drug metformin.

images created by Google Imagen
images created by Google Imagen

The dark secret behind those cute AI-generated animal images

Google Brain has revealed its own image-making AI, called Imagen. But don't expect to see anything that isn't wholesome.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.