Sometime in the next 10 years, the International Space Station may be carefully retired from service. After almost 30 years in space, and 30 more in R&D, our sole permanent residence in space is nearing the end of its useful life. What happens after that?
This Friday, we’ll get a glimpse. A SpaceX rocket will launch carrying a tightly packed assembly of cloth and mechanisms bound for the ISS, where it will be carefully inflated and attached to the aging space station for a historic first test of the concept.
It’s called BEAM, a pressurized habitat with roughly the same amount of space as a typical backyard storage shed, and it represents the the biggest design change to the ISS ever made. Developed by the private Nevada-based aerospace company Bigelow, it’s actually based on a concept for an inflatable habitat that Congress axed in the 1990s–the rights to which Bigelow then bought from NASA. The prototype has been under construction since 2013, when NASA granted Bigelow $17.8 million to build the module.
The 11-foot-wide, 13-foot-long pod will self-inflate once it docks to create a smooth, round, and totally empty interior space–perfect for astronauts who live in the tightly packed mechanical universe of the ISS. Keeping it safe from razor-sharp space debris and other projectiles is a series of proprietary materials along with Vectran, a textile known for its strength and ability to withstand extreme heat. Together, they make the habitat impenetrable. According to the New York Times, astronauts won’t move in right away, but they’ll visit the empty space “periodically” to take measurements and log data about the prototype.
It’s a monumental moment for design in space–an extended test of an inflatable habitat that involves actual humans–and it signals a new era for how environments are designed for human life off of Earth. But it’s also a concept that dates back to the earliest days of space architecture.
Inflatables are the foundation of our entire space program. Back before NASA was even NASA–when it was still known as NACA–its engineers were developing massive inflatable spheres that NASA explains could be launched into space to bounce signals around the Earth’s surface from space, a forerunner to GPS.
In 1960, engineers launched the first communications satellite, known as Project Echo, a 100-foot-wide inflatable satellite. Historian James R. Hansen has called it “perhaps the most beautiful object ever to be put into space”—a perfect sphere coated in aluminum that weighed less than 150 pounds. An image of it in a hangar is still one of the most stunning and famous images NASA has ever produced.
As the idea of humans living in space became feasible, inflatables seemed like the obvious answer to the question of how. Counterculture architects such as Buckminster Fuller and the radical group Ant Farm were experimenting with inflatable materials on the ground, showing how plastic and steel could be used to create self-sustaining worlds on Earth.
The idea found a natural corollary in the blossoming space program. In the early ’60s, NASA engineers came up with many inflatable habitats. In his history of spaceflight, Hansen gives an incredibly detailed account of these prototypes: One was a space lab in the shape of a torus. Another used inflatables to connect rigid modules. But, as Hansen explains, there was one big problem with all of these ideas: “The principal concern was the same one that had plagued the promoters of Echo,” he writes, “the danger of a meteorite puncturing the structure.”
Over time, design thinking evolved to favor rigid structures like the ones used on the ISS today. Then in the 1990s, a new plan to create an inflatable space lab, called TransHab, was resurrected and then stymied when Congress enacted a bill legally halting work on the expensive project and shocking the engineers behind it, as its creator remembers in an interview from 2006. Bigelow, in essence, picked up where NASA left off with the failed project, licensing the design and developing it into the form we know today.
But Friday’s launch is just one step in the company’s grander plan to colonize Lower Earth Orbit with huge inflatable habitats. Bigelow’s ultimate plan? To launch many more of them as “private sector space stations,” creating an orbiting community of habitats that will make space less like a homestead on the frontier and more like a busy town. After that? The moon.