Inflatable private room to dock to ISS, commercialise space

The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module is on track to launch in 2015, and will be attached to the International Space Station to test the technology.

Michelle Starr Science editor
Michelle Starr is CNET's science editor, and she hopes to get you as enthralled with the wonders of the universe as she is. When she's not daydreaming about flying through space, she's daydreaming about bats.
Michelle Starr
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Bigelow Aerospace

The $17.8 million BEAM inflatable module will be delivered to the ISS by SpaceX's Dragon cargo craft, where it will be installed by the robotic Canadarm2. It is expected to stay for a couple of years, attached to the Tranquility node's port aft, where it will be used to test and demonstrate the feasibility of private company Bigelow Aerospace's inflatable space habitat technology -- as well as what the company can do with low-Earth orbit (LEO).

"LEO will become a commercial domain," Bigelow's Mike Gold told Space.com, adding that it wasn't long ago that all communications satellites were owned by governments -- compared to now, when the majority are privately owned.

Bigelow currently has two stand-alone autonomous spacecraft in orbit, the Genesis I and the Genesis II, both collecting data about LEO conditions and about how well the technology performs in practise. The BEAM module will allow further data collation for the company, which is planning to launch its own space station, named Bigelow Aerospace Alpha Station, to be at least partially operational as early as next year.

In turn, NASA will use BEAM to measure the radiation levels inside the module as compared to other areas of the ISS to determine how safe it is for habitation.

Artist's concept of the BEAM docked to the ISS. Bigelow Aerospace

The biggest current barrier to the commercialisation of LEO, Gold noted, are the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), which cover satellite technology and forbid the sharing of that technology with others -- although this restriction was relaxed early in 2013.

Bigelow is already working towards space getaways -- for a price. The company is currently offering space travel packages, including the trip to and from LEO aboard a SpaceX craft (as per a 2012 announcement) starting at $26.25 million, and a two-month stay on the Alpha Station for $25 million -- bringing the total cost to just $51.25 million, compared to the $40 million it currently costs members of the public to stay on the ISS for a week.