Intelligent Machines

Inflatable Habitats

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.

This story is part of our March/April 2011 Issue
See the rest of the issue
Subscribe

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

Become an MIT Technology Review Insider for in-depth analysis and unparalleled perspective.
Subscribe today

Uh oh–you've read all five of your free articles for this month.

Insider Premium

$179.95/yr US PRICE

More from Intelligent Machines

Artificial intelligence and robots are transforming how we work and live.

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe to Insider Basic.

  • Insider Basic {! insider.prices.basic !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Six issues of our award winning magazine and daily delivery of The Download, our newsletter of what’s important in technology and innovation.

    See details+

    What's Included

    Bimonthly home delivery and unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website.

    The Download. Our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation.

You've read of free articles this month.