Most of the spacecraft in science fiction are ridiculously spacious, but real life is much less luxurious. The International Space Station (ISS) has just 388 cubic meters of habitable space, and future deep-space assignments could have astronauts serving much longer tours of duty. NASA has partnered with Sierra Nevada Corporation to explore ways to make spacecraft a bit less cramped, and the company has now completed a prototype inflatable habitat module with almost as much living space as the entire ISS.
NASA originally funded the NextSTEP-2 program to develop technologies for long-term missions like the Lunar Gateway station and a journey to Mars. The current plan is to make the Lunar Gateway a smaller modular station that will initially have just a small life support area and docking for lunar landers. The inflatable habitat shown off at Johnson Space Center this week could eventually add a lot more living areas to the Gateway and other missions.
This isn’t NASA’s first look at inflatable habitats. The agency partnered with Bigelow Aerospace to deploy a small inflatable prototype module to the ISS called the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM). The 16 cubic meter volume of BEAM is a far cry from the Sierra Nevada mockup, though.
The habitat measures approximately 26 by 26 feet (8 by 8 meters) with a total internal volume of 984 cubic feet (300 cubic meters). That’s a third of the total pressurized volume of the ISS, and more than three-quarters of its habitable space. The multi-layered fabric material can be compressed for launch, allowing NASA to send the entire module to space in a standard rocket like the Falcon Heavy, ULA’s upcoming Vulcan booster, or NASA’s own Space Launch System.
Once in space, the module can expand into a three-level habitat with room for any necessary activities — Sierra Nevada Corporation doesn’t have a specific purpose in mind, but the prototype is outfitted with a greenhouse, scientific facilities, a gym, and more.
Sierra Nevada hopes to impress NASA and other potential partners with its initial design, but a space-ready habitat could be altered as needed. With all the changes to the proposed Lunar Gateway, the company isn’t sure when or if NASA will want a large inflatable habitat module. The timeline for sending humans to Mars is still very preliminary as well. Sierra Nevada isn’t building Mars-specific habitats until NASA defines mission parameters. However, an inflatable habitat like this could make a months-long trip to Mars much less stressful for the crew.