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Inflatable space capsules may be next stage of spaceflight

Daniel Martins, staff writer
January 20, 2013 — Inflatable tires, inflatable mattresses -- and soon, inflatable spaceships?

The inflatable BEAM capsule will be launched sometime in 2015. Courtesy: NASA/Bigelow
The inflatable BEAM capsule will be launched sometime in 2015. Courtesy: NASA/Bigelow

NASA plans to launch an experimental, inflatable space module up to the International Space Station, part of ongoing efforts to rethink the way humans live and work in space.

The space agency awarded a $17.8 million contract to private firm Bigelow Aerospace to build a working expandable module, known as the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM).

"We're demonstrating progress on a technology that will advance important long-duration human spaceflight goals," NASA's deputy administrator, Lori Garver, said in a statement.

The BEAM will be launched sometime in 2015 and, once attached to the station's Tranquility node, will be inflated to full size using air stored within the packed module.

Over the following two years, astronauts will monitor the BEAM, checking its integrity and leak rate and occasionally entering the capsule. After about two years, it will be jettisoned from the station and allowed to burn up on re-entry.

NASA says technology like this will be critical on future manned ventures into deep space and, eventually, to the surface of Mars.

Since retiring its aged space shuttle fleet in 2011, NASA has frequently partnered with the private sector to deliver services and technology to the station.

The BEAM will be delivered to the station by a SpaceX Dragon capsule, whose first launch last year marked the beginning of a series of private resupply flights.

Contracts have also been awarded to SpaceX and other companies to start developing commercial manned capsules. NASA currently launches its astronauts from the Russian Space Agency's Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

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