Bigelow shows off inflatable space module in ground test

Bigelow Aerospace is currently conducting a two- week ground test of their B330 habitat module, which the space company hopes NASA chooses to use on the future Lunar Gateway.

The on-ground tests are meant to examine the structure and assess toe various aspects of the module. Notably, former astronauts have been giving feedback on things like foothold placement and the overall flow of the interior as part of NASA’s NextSTEP Habitation program. 

So far, eight NASA astronauts have participated in the trial.

Bigelow Aerospace has constructed a ground-test unit of its massive Mars Transporter Testing Unit BA-330 space habitat for NASA tests on Earth.
Source: Bigelow

The tests, which involve two B330 test units, are part of NASA’s Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) program. In 2016, NextSTEP awarded funding to Bigelow and five other companies to develop ground prototypes for habitats that could help NASA astronauts journey to the moon, Mars and other deep-space destinations.

“The purpose of this test program is not to pick a winner or a loser but to find what we like and what we don’t like,” former NASA astronaut Mike Gernhardt, the principal investigator for the NextSTEP habitat-testing program, said during a media event here Thursday.

“And that will all be melded into requirements going forward for the final flight design,” added Gernhardt, who flew four space shuttle missions during his astronaut career.

B330 takes its name from its 330 cubic meters (11,650 cubic feet) of internal volume. Just one B330, when expanded, would provide half of the usable volume of the International Space Station. For comparison, the pressurized volume of the entire International Space Station (ISS) is about 930 cubic m (32,840 cubic feet).

The B330 is designed to support four astronauts indefinitely and five “for many months,” Bigelow Aerospace founder and President Robert Bigelow said in a statement Thursday.

Inside Bigelow Aerospace’s all-steel Mars Transporter Testing Unit, during a NASA ground test of the company’s B330 habitat concept on Sept. 12, 2019.
Source: Mike Wall | Space.com

B330 is designed to be an industrial-strength balloon, which will make its way to the Lunar Gateway shriveled up but will inflate to full size once it reaches its destination.

This innovation will allow habitat modules with the capability of providing large amounts of volume to be carried inside small rockets off the Earth’ gravity.

In fact, the module’s expandable nature is its main selling point; the B330 will provide much more habitable volume per unit of launch mass than is available in a traditional aluminum module, Bigelow Aerospace representatives stressed.

Furthermore, because of this design, Bigelow can cater to multiple astronauts where they can work, sleep, and relax and it is also designed to be an independent space station; it will have its own life-support and propulsion systems, for example.

“This volume is great,” Gernhardt told reporters. “But if you lay it out bad, it can work against you. Or it can work for you. So you have great potential, but you have to lay it out right.”

According to Bigelow, if NASA made the call to the company today and ask for a B330, they could be ready to ship in 42 months. A second station would take 28 months, and a third station would take just a year.

Bigelow Aerospace founder and President Robert Bigelow (left) and former NASA astronaut Mike Gernhardt, the principal investigator of NASA’s NextSTEP habitat-testing program, stand outside Bigelow’s Mars Transporter Testing Unit on Sept. 12, 2019.
Source: Mike Wall | Space.com

All of which mainly involves NASA’s ambitious plan of returning to the moon on its 2024 Artemis mission and the Gateway is a critical part of the space agency’s plans.

Envisioned as a structure similar to that of the International Space Station, the Gateway will be a lunar orbiter where future astronauts visit before climbing into a lander and heading down to the Moon’s surface or departing towards deep space such as Mars.

In order to achieve this, NASA has fast-tracked its plans and opted for a partial Gateway in order to meet the 2024 deadline where construction is set to begin in 2022.

As part of that momentous event, NASA is employing commercial companies to provide hardware development and construction, which also helps the space agency to remain on schedule.

Bigelow hopes that NASA ultimately selects the B330 for use on the Lunar Gateway as Robert Bigelow emphasized during Thursday’s event as their chief focus at the moment.

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