Inflatable Space Architecture
Tourists need accommodation, and Las Vegas hotelier Robert Bigelow is aiming to supply it. Adapted from TransHab, a never-used NASA design for an inflatable space station, Bigelow’s Nautilus space station module will provide 330 cubic metres of living space for space tourists or industrial researchers.
The inflatable multilayered polymer hull of the “hab” will be around 30 centimetres thick and will contain layers of Kevlar – as used in bullet-proof vests – to provide some protection against micrometeorites and space debris.Bigelow’s engineers are testing the strength of the sandwich of high-tech fabrics and radiation shielding that will make up Nautilus’s hull by firing high-speed projectiles at it. They are also testing the hab to destruction by over-inflating the modules, with the resulting explosions contained in rigid test cages.
Nautiluses could be flown as independent space stations or connected with a docking mechanism to make bigger hotels. Bigelow sees economies of scale as one of the keys to profitability, and plans to sell space hotels to rivals for $100 million each.
If all goes well with orbital tests of one-third-scale test modules to be launched late next year, Bigelow plans to launch the first habitable Nautilus in 2008, around the time SpaceDev expects the first private orbital flights to be happening.
While Starzyk, for one, does not think commercial orbital vehicles will happen that soon, space flight has always been fuelled by dreamers daring to expect the impossible. Time will tell if they are right. The next question is when will the interactive architects get their chance to add a bit of poetry to these inflatables?