NORTH LAS VEGAS, Nev. — An inflatable space pod to be attached to the International Space Station in a couple of years will be like no other piece of the station.
NASA is contracting a private company to build an inflatable space pod for the International Space Station.
Instead of metal, its walls will be made of floppy cloth, making it easier to launch (and then inflate).
NASA said Wednesday that it had signed a $17.8 million contract with Bigelow Aerospace to build the module, which could reach the space station as soon as 2015. That is a bargain-basement price compared with most equipment the United States and other countries send into space, and the Bigelow agreement could serve as a model for how NASA puts together missions at lower costs by using a Kmart strategy: buying off-the-shelf pieces instead of developing its own designs.
“This program starts a relationship that we think, and we hope, is going to be meaningful between NASA and ourselves,” Robert T. Bigelow, the chief executive of Bigelow Aerospace, said at a news conference here at the company’s headquarters.
Low-Earth orbit, he said, is the “first target,” but larger modules could be used for stations in deep space or for habitats on the Moon. “We have ambitions to get to the Moon someday, to have a base there,” Mr. Bigelow said.
The fold-up, blow-up approach solves the conundrum of how to build something voluminous that can be packed into the narrow payload confines of a rocket. The soft sides of the module, called the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or Beam, will allow it to be scrunched like a T-shirt in a suitcase.
At the space station, it will be attached to an air lock and then inflated like a balloon and expanded by a factor of 10 to its full size — about 13 feet long and 10 feet in diameter, with about 560 cubic feet of space inside. At least initially, it will remain empty as NASA gathers data about its characteristics, including temperature and protection against micrometeorites.
The balloonlike structure is carefully designed not to pop. The fabric walls will consist of several layers including Vectran, a bullet-resistant material. Even if punctured by a high-speed meteorite, the fabric does not tear. A hole in a metal structure in space, by comparison, can cause explosive decompression as air rushes out.
When the Beam module reaches the space station, astronauts might go to it to seek solitude: engineers expect it will be the quietest spot there. The fabric walls absorb sound vibrations instead of transmitting them.
Beam revives a concept that NASA developed more than a decade ago for an inflatable four-story crew quarters on the space station. Congress halted the work as the station’s construction costs grew sharply.
Mr. Bigelow, who made a fortune in construction and hotels, licensed the technology from NASA and set up his factory here in North Las Vegas, investing more than $250 million of his own money. The company has already launched two unmanned prototypes into orbit, showing that they can remain inflated for years.
If Beam is successful, NASA will probably incorporate the technology into any manned mission to an asteroid or elsewhere in the solar system, or to build a base on the Moon or Mars. Inflatables could also overturn notions of what a spacecraft ought to look like: Instead of the sleek, shiny machines imagined in science fiction, the practical ones of the future may be blobby, soft-sided contraptions.
Mr. Bigelow holds space ambitions of his own. His company is building two much larger inflatable modules, each with 11,600 cubic feet of space, to launch as the world’s first private space station, docked together as station Alpha. The plan is to lease space on Alpha to countries that want to set up low-cost space programs and companies that want to conduct zero-gravity research. Tourists might be invited, too.
At the news conference, Mr. Bigelow announced prices for travelers to his space station: $26.25 million for a 60-day stay, including the ride to orbit atop a Falcon 9 rocket built by Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX. If the traveler wished to book the rocket ride in a more expensive capsule under development by Boeing, the cost would be about $10 million more.
Mr. Bigelow said the pieces of his private space station would be ready for business as soon as other companies were able to provide the rocket transportation for the people going up and down. The Beam module is a variation of earlier designs, allowing Bigelow to set a fixed price for NASA. With most of its development programs, NASA pays the contractor for time and effort — and overruns. With the fixed-price contract, if Bigelow runs into obstacles, the company, not NASA, will absorb the additional costs.
“For pennies on the dollar, NASA will be able to test a technology that could have implications for future exploration,” said Lori Garver, NASA’s deputy administrator. “It represents a new way of doing business.”
If Bigelow succeeds not only at building inflatable structures, but also at juggling the logistics of operating and supplying a space station, its private stations could soon overshadow the International Space Station.
The first Bigelow station, which could be in orbit by late 2016, would be large enough to house a dozen people, twice as many as the International Space Station.
The company intends to build additional ones to meet demand, and it has already begun designing an enormous module with 74,000 cubic feet of space.