A prototype inflatable space module, developed by Bigelow Aerospace, will be tested aboard the International Space Station.

NASA will pay Bigelow $17.8 million for the experimental habitat, known as the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM.

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It would be the company’s third orbital prototype, but the first to be tested as part of a crewed spacecraft.  The demonstration not only is expected to help Bigelow lease space to paying customers aboard its planned free-flying Earth-orbiting outposts. NASA also is interested in the technology for future deep space missions, such as to an asteroid, the moon, or Mars.

“This partnership agreement … represents a step forward in cutting-edge technology that can allow humans to thrive in space safely and affordably,” NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver said in a statement.

Details of the project will be announced Wednesday at Bigelow’s headquarters in Las Vegas.

Image: Using inflatable habitat concepts originally conceived by NASA, Bigelow Aerospace hopes to have a commercial alternative to space station technology. Credit: Bigelow Aerospace