It folds like a shirt and fills with air like a balloon. It's an entirely new kettle of space pod, destined for the International Space Station and beyond — and if NASA has its way, it could be launching as soon as 2016.
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 pods designed for NASA will be around 13 feet long and 10 feet in diameter, and have a volume of around 560 cubic feet. But that's just the beginning. Apparently Bigelow has plans to launch his own line of private space bungalows — and he's already announced lodging fees: a little over 26 million for a 60-day stay, " including the ride to orbit atop a Falcon 9 rocket built by Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX."
Bigelow aims to start out with a line of inflatable modules much larger than the ones he'll be building for the ISS. They'll start at around 11,600 cubic feet, and extend all the way up to as much as 74,000 cubic feet of room.
Let's hope these things are micrometeor-proof.
More at NYT.