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NASA drops $17.8 million on expandable module for the space station

NASA has dropped $17.8 million on an expandable module for the space station, according to a space agency press release. Bigelow Aerospace has been awarded a contract to provide NASA with an expandable module for the International Space Station. The expandable module, called the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, will show the benefits of this space habitat technology for future exploration and commercial space undertakings.

“The International Space Station is a unique laboratory that enables important discoveries that benefit humanity and vastly increase understanding of how humans can live and work in space for long periods,” NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver said in a statement. “This partnership agreement for the use of expandable habitats represents a step forward in cutting-edge technology that can allow humans to thrive in space safely and affordably, and heralds important progress in U.S. commercial space innovation.”

According to Forbes, Bigelow has been working to perfect expandable spacecraft technology since its founding in 1998. The company launched its first prototypes into orbit in 2006 and 2007. Forbes says that Bigelow’s eventual goal is to construct stations for customers, with the inflatable modules being able to make a station bigger or stand alone on their own.

Ars Technica reports that Bigelow developed a proposal for a Bigelow Expandable Activity Module back in January 2011. The BA-2100, the original concept design, would be 2100 cubic meters (54.8 feet long and 41.3 feet in diameter.)

“Since 1999 our mission has been to provide affordable options for spaceflight to national space agencies and corporate clients.  In 2006 and 2007, we launched our orbiting prototypes Genesis I and Genesis II. Using our patented expandable habitats, our plan is to greatly exceed the usable space of the International Space Station at a fraction of the cost by developing our next generation spacecraft,” reads Bigelow Aerospace’s mission statement on the company’s website.

According to Bigelow, the concept behind expandable spacecraft technology is not new. In fact, the history of inflatable space habitats goes back to the very start of America’s space program. The world’s first passive communications satellites, Echo 1 and Echo 2, were among the first projects to be taken on by NASA in 1958. With a diameter similar to the height of a 10-story building, NASA engineers were faced with the challenge of how to place such a big structure into the relatively small fairing of a Thor-Delta rocket. Engineers ultimately used an inflatable system.

Fast forward several decades and NASA was still working with inflatable technology. Although the idea was eventually abandoned due to a lack of budgetary and political support, NASA was tasked with working on plans for a future manned mission to Mars in 1992 after the president issued National Security Presidential Directive 6, authorizing the Space Exploration Initiative. Once again, NASA engineers were faced with the issue of fitting a lot of volume into a small space. NASA engineers eventually came up with the idea of an inflatable crew habitat for the trip to the Red Planet. The habitat was called the “Transit Habitat” or “TransHab.”

More details about the expandable module will be discussed in a press event on Wednesday. Forbes notes, however, that Bigelow Aerospace has a launch scheduled with SpaceX for 2015.