Bigelow Aerospace for Discovery News

Artist's illustration of Bigelow's experimental balloon-like module attached to the International Space Station.Bigelow Aerospace for Discovery News

More than 20 years ago, NASA looked at flying an expandable, balloon-like module to house crewmembers aboard the International Space Station, a low-cost and potentially safer alternative to traditional metal spacecraft.

The project fell victim to budget cuts and politics, but was not forgotten.

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Bigelow Aerospace, a privately owned company founded by hotelier Robert Bigelow, licensed the technology from NASA and put in millions more to develop it, including building and flying two unmanned prototypes, Genesis 1 and 2, which were launched in 2006 and 2007 respectively and which remain operational today.

In 2015, a third Bigelow dwelling will be put into orbit, but this one will for the first time have people aboard -- International Space Station astronauts.

NASA will pay Bigelow $17.8 million for a small experimental habitat, called the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM, which is slated to be flown to the space station in 2015.

The 3,000-pound balloon-like structure, which will be flown as part of a Space Exploration Technologies' (SpaceX) cargo run, will be attached to a space station connecting node and inflated with pressurized air to become a rigid, cylinder-shaped habitat about the size of a small bedroom.

"It will be the first expandable habitat module ever constructed for human occupancy,” Bigelow Aerospace operations director Mike Gold told Discovery News.

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No word yet on what the station's six crewmembers will do with their new dwelling, but Bigelow wants to collect information about how the inflatable, which is made of a Kevlar-like material, fares with humans aboard.

The company plans to build, operate and staff larger free-flying orbital outposts and lease space aboard them to research organizations, companies and even wealthy aspiring space tourists. It has preliminary agreements with agencies in seven countries, including the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Australia, Singapore, Japan, Sweden and the United Arab Emirate of Dubai.

Adding NASA to the client list is a coup for Bigelow, which also looks to provide inflatable habitats for future U.S. human space missions beyond low-Earth orbit, which is where the space station flies and where Bigelow’s privately owned habitats will be located.

"When you talk about beyond low-Earth orbit, long-duration human exploration, you need large volumes to be able to conduct these missions, and yet you still have the challenges of limited space aboard rockets and limited mass. Expandable habitats deliver on both fronts," Gold said.

The soft-sided structures also offer enhanced radiation protection over traditional metal spacecraft, which can generate potentially harmful secondary radioactive particles when they are hit by solar protons or high-energy cosmic rays.

"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," NASA's deputy administrator Lori Garver said in a statement.

Details of the agreement are scheduled to be discussed at a press conference at Bigelow headquarters in Las Vegas on Tuesday afternoon.