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A Bouncy House Heads to the International Space Station

An artist's conception of the inflated BEAM module (balloon structure at top center) berthed to the Tranquility node of ISS. (NASA)
An artist’s conception of the inflated BEAM module (balloon structure at top center) berthed to the Tranquility node of ISS. (NASA)

Today, when SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket blasts off from Cape Canaveral, it will be boosting the rough equivalent of an inflatable bouncy house to space – a type of inhabitable module that could ultimately be used to construct a space hotel or habitat.

And really, what could be better than a bouncy house in space? It’s like the ultimate Airbnb.

Ok, fine. The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module isn’t exactly like the inflatable castles you can temporarily park in your yard, but it’s pretty darn close, conceptually. Designed to expand after unpacking, the module, when inflated, will resemble a hollow, crinkled marshmallow with rounded edges.

And inside, where someone could theoretically live, it’ll actually be rather spacious. The 3,000-pound prototype launching today is smaller than the envisioned double-decker version of the future, but it’s still bigger than some San Francisco living spaces. When packed, BEAM measures just 7 feet long by 7 feet wide – somewhat shorter than a Smart car, but a little bit taller – and after being pumped full of air from the International Space Station, it’ll be 13 feet long and 10.5 feet in diameter.

Ultimately, the idea is to string a bunch of these things together like Legos and create a habitat in space, on Mars, on the moon, wherever. After all, it’s much easier to collapse a tent and squish it into a backpack than it is to port the thing fully assembled.

It’s an appealingly practical idea, though having a thin layer of material as the only buffer between fragile biology and a hostile vacuum is somewhat unsettling (that flexible layer, however, is made of Kevlar-like materials and is strong enough to withstand an attack from rogue space debris, company president Robert Biglow told Florida Today).

So.

“Would you go to an inflatable hotel in space?” I asked planetary scientist Paul Abell, one of my hosts on a recent tour of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, where I had a chance to see a training replica of the BEAM prototype.

“Oh yeah – without a doubt,” Abell said.

Me, too, I thought, while eyeing the module in the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility. This is where astronauts train for missions using replicas of the ISS, Soyuz capsule, Space Shuttle, and other spacecraft. I’m told that astronauts used the exact BEAM module I’m looking at to train for hatch interaction, deployment, and sensor retrieval.

The BEAM mockup at NASA's Johnson Space Center. (NASA)
The BEAM mockup at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. (NASA)

It’s actually not the first time something like this has hitched a ride into orbit. In 2006 and 2007, Bigelow’s expandable Genesis I and II modules blasted off from Russia. Genesis I carried, among other things, a cache of Mexican jumping beans. And tucked inside Genesis II were a variety of bugs – ants, Madagascar hissing cockroaches, and scorpions from South Africa. The bugs are probably long dead (if not, yikes), but both modules are still in good shape and are orbiting the Earth, destined to re-enter the atmosphere sometime in the next decade.

The module launched today will experience a similarly low-key fate, bugs not included. It won’t house any space tourists, and will only occasionally feel the presence of astronauts. After the crew on board the International Space Station inflates it sometime in May (most likely), it’ll hang out for two years, serving as a demonstration that such habitats are capable of handling long-duration exposures to space.

Someday, I would love to visit one of these inflatable modules in space. I imagine it’ll be way better than my already awesome first experience in a bounce house, which didn’t happen until disappointingly later in life, when I was 18 and about to take off for college. My parents decided the occasion merited a party, and I decided to go all unintentionally hipster and see if we could temporarily install a bounce house in the backyard.

“What kind of house do you want?” they asked, pointing out the variety of castles and other available designs.

“Ummm, the space station one,” I replied. Obviously.

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