Ep. 450: Inflatable Habitats

In order to live in space, we’ll need to live in a habitat that simulates the temperature, pressure and atmosphere of Earth. And one of the most interesting ideas for how to do this will be with inflatable habitats. In fact, there are a few habitats in the works right now, including one attached to the International Space Station.
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This episode is sponsored by: Barkbox

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Pamela: This week’s episode of Astronomy Cast is sponsored by BarkBox.
I’ve said it before and I’m going to say it again, we are super-lucky to have sponsors that are also companies we just plain love. I was a BarkBox subscriber before we got this sponsorship and I’m going to stay one for a long time because Eddie, my big old Australian Shepherd, loves BarkBox.
If you don’t follow me on Twitter, you may not have seen this but I’ve been putting out “unboxing” videos because he knows when the box is from BarkBox. This is partially because it has four to six natural treats inside of it and he kind of wants those treats. It’s also because it’s, like, always the same size box and he wants the box. And it’s gotten to the point that he goes in snout-first. I don’t even have a chance to completely get the lid open before he’s in there and he’s pulling out, first, one soft squishy toy and then the other soft squishy toy and he’s playing for a few minutes. And then, he’s like, “Mom, it’s time for a treat.”
So, if you want to give your dog this kind of amazing treat once per month, go ahead and do like I did and subscribe to a 6- or 12-month plan at BarkBox. And, in fact, you will get a free extra month from BarkBox if you visit barkbox.com/astronomy and subscribe to a 6- or 12-month plan.
So, go get yourself a happy dog. Thanks.
Fraser: Astronomy Cast Episode 450: Inflatable Habitats
Welcome to Astronomy Cast, our weekly facts-based journey through the cosmos, where we help you understand not only what we know but how we know what we know.
My name is Fraser Cain. I’m the publisher of Universe Today. With me, as always, is Dr. Pamela Gay, the director of Technology and Citizen Science at the Astronomical Society of the Pacific and the director of CosmoQuest.
Hey, Pamela. How are you doin’?
Pamela: I’m doing okay. How are you doing?
Fraser: Great. Survey.
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Let’s get on with the show.
In order to live in space, we’ll need to live in a habitat that simulates the temperature, pressure and atmosphere of Earth. And one of the most interesting ideas for how to do this will be with inflatable habitats. In fact, there are a few habitats in the works right now, including one attached to the International Space Station.
So, Pamela, I’m working on an episode of The Guide to Space all about Wernher von Braun’s plans to colonize Mars. He wrote a book called The Mars Project – or Das Marsprojekt – in 1948 and it’s just terrible. He was not a great fiction writer. But the appendix that’s attached to this book is phenomenal and goes into incredible detail. And a lot of the ideas that he had sort of have been playing out ever since.
And one of these ideas that he actually proposed – like, literally, back in the ‘40s – is this idea of inflatable habitats; that they would send that first crew to Mars, they would set up an inflatable habitat on the surface of Mars and use that to protect themselves from – I don’t know – the Martians.
Pamela: As you do, as you do.
Fraser: Well, you know – Martians could get into the inflatable habitat and eat your stuff. But what I’m saying is this idea’s been around for a long time – 50-plus years.
Can you give us sort of – What is the requirement for such a habitat? Why do we need these things in the first place?
Pamela: Well, clearly, you need to protect yourself from the Martians eating your food.
Fraser: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Pamela: That may be one of my favorite things you’ve ever said.
Fraser: They built these canals and the canals have run out of water and now those poor Martians were thirsty and starving and they need to get into your habitat and eat your food.
Pamela: Okay. So, reality is far less amusing.
Primarily, you need the inflatable habitat to do three things:
First of all, it needs to fit into the area of a rocket ship that will get it into space. And inflatable things start small – think “balloon” – and then get really big. This is useful for fitting things into rockets.
Once you get them into space, which is the first criteria of them being useful – because if you can’t get them off the planet, they’re not useful. Once you get them into space, they need to protect you from everything outside of the habitat. So, they need to protect you from micrometeorites, they need to protect you from radiation and then they also have to keep you and everything in the habitat okay.
So, this means they can’t be leaking their oxygen. They need to be nice and stable and stay together and hold their shape and all of the things that keep you alive.
Fraser: Right. And so, you know, you already sort of mentioned what is really one of the main advantages of an inflatable habitat versus a rigid habitat – is volume compared to what you can put on a rocket, right?
Pamela: Right.
So, the awesomeness of this is you can start with something that isn’t too big a deal, fits easily in an Atlas V fairing and then becomes 330 cubic meters.
Fraser: Can you give us some kind of comparison to what the International Space Station – like, what modules would contain?
Pamela: That would require me to know the names of modules. The way to think of this is you start out with something that would easily fit inside of a school bus and then it gets much, much, much, much bigger.
Fraser: According to the internets, the ISS has the internal volume of a Boeing 747.
Pamela: Okay. So, that includes all the different modules.
Fraser: Yeah – that’s been put up so far.
Pamela: Yeah.
Fraser: 32,333 cubic feet, which – Oh, wait. 935 cubic meters.
Pamela: So, with these, it’s useful because, while they don’t pack up as nicely as a tent might, it’s a similar principle: Everything squishes down into a little bag and you’re not quite sure how the manufacturer originally got it into that bag because it’s never going back into it ever again, but when you take it out of the bag, you end up with this giant room that is easy for you and several of your friends to live within.
Fraser: Now, what are the downsides of having an inflatable habitat?
Pamela: So, one of the awesome things is people have been really worried with the inflatables – for instance, you won’t be able to get the same radiation protection that you get with the metal hull that they build on spaceships, except it was realized that certain vinyls that are rich in hydrogen atoms are actually just as good, if not better, at protecting you from certain forms of radiation. And they also don’t scatter the radiation the same way that you have to worry about with metal. So, you don’t end up with the same reflections, for instance. So, radiation – can cope.
When it comes to micrometeorites, they’re actually a lot better than the aluminum because an aluminum layer is rigid; you hit it hard, it dents. We’ve all probably had rocks fly up and hit the hood of a vehicle we were familiar with and you know that dent that it leaves. Well, that rock is going nowhere near as fast as the stuff that hits the Space Station. And periodically, things try to enter the Space Station this way. Rigid just doesn’t quite protect you the same way from letting the stuff in.
The inflatables actually have multiple, multiple levels of materials and it will squish down and give a little – and this process of giving a little can slow down the micrometeorite over a distance. Slowing it down over a distance means that it is able to exert far less of an impact onto the surface and it’s not gonna get punctured the same way the aluminum would.
Fraser: So, that is not a downside; that is an upside.
Pamela: Mm-hmm.
Fraser: So, let’s talk about some of the inflatable habitats that are in the works or actually deployed right now. And if we had done this show, back in the beginning of Astronomy Cast –
Pamela: Which we tried to do.
Fraser: – this all would have been theoretical but now, here we are, ten years later. We can talk about actual, practical, physical inflatable habitats that are up there in space right now.
Pamela: So, Bigelow Aerospace –
Fraser: That’s one. The chat wants to find out how many times we’re going to say “Bigelow” during this episode.
Bigelow Aerospace is not an advertiser of this episode of Astronomy Cast and yet, enjoy the sponsorship.
Pamela: It’s true, it’s true.
Fraser: Enjoy the promotion.
Pamela: Oh, man. Now I’m trying to figure out how to phrase these sentences to how few times can I say it.
Fraser: No, don’t – just give in.
Pamela: So, folks have long been thinking, “Let’s use inflatables” for all the obvious reasons – think “tents”, like I said before. And the folks over at Bigelow Aerospace – which is, of course, led by Robert Bigelow – have been working on actually making these a practical reality since the early 2000s. And their biggest hurdle has actually just been being able to get these things into space.
They launched their first two test modules – this is Genesis I and II – on Russian rockets; they went up in 2006 and 2007, respectively. And they basically went up to prove the concept; to figure out: Can we do this? They were each 11.5 cubic meters – so, an uncomfortably small space unless you like those compartment hotel rooms that you can sometimes get at airports. But the uncomfortably small space was used to test insects and equipment; they ran advertisements on the insides of these things. They just wanted to figure out: Does this work? And the answer was “yes”. Yes, it worked.
They were then working on something called Galaxy. It was going to be a little bit bigger. They ended up cancelling that, after doing tests on the ground with it, and jumped to, instead, working on the – I’m gonna say it again – Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, which is otherwise BEAM.
Fraser: BEAM. Yeah, that’s the last time you need to say that – BEAM.
Pamela: So, the BEAM module – which is a fabulously forced acronym – is something that launched on SpaceX, on one of the Dragon rockets. It was built under NASA contract for only $18 million, which, if you think about things for outer space, that’s like free.
Fraser: Yeah, they find that in the couches.
Pamela: Right. So, $18 million; that’s multiple years of funding for a whole – It’s free.
So, they build this great little module, 16 cubic meters. So, if you think about that, it’s still tiny. It’s still like a tent you’d go camping in. But they hooked it up in the summer of 2016 to the International Space Station. First time they tried to blow it up, it said no – again, kind of like expanding your tent. Second time they went to expand it out, worked perfectly and it’s been there ever since. And, every few months, the astronauts go in and they go, “Space! I have space. It’s lots of space. It’s awesome!” And then, sadly, they go back into the rest of the ISS because they’re not allowed to live in it yet because it’s there for testing purposes.
But they’re currently monitoring: What are the radiation levels inside? Just to double-check that all of the theoretical understanding was correct. They’re checking: Does it develop leaks? All of these things that have to be tested before astronauts are allowed to live in things are getting tested. And, so far, it’s going beautifully and it’s awesome.
Fraser: Yeah. And, I mean, just to really kind of set the stage here, right? That, as you say, a module for the International Space Station, that has as much living space in it as any other module – it’s got 16 cubic meters, so it’s not a lot of space in there but there is some space – was built for $18 million; was launched as part of a SpaceX launch and then was attached and inflated. This is amazing and this is just the beginning.
So, let’s talk about some of the future, much larger, inflatable habitats that are in the works.
Pamela: What I love is they actually have a full-scale mock-up of what they are calling “Space Complex Alpha” because it needed to sound Star Trekie.
Fraser: That is the best name.
Pamela: Of course, of course.
So, they’re working on Space Complex Alpha, which is three different blow-up-ables with solar arrays that are mounted in the center against an air lock. And these three inflatables are what they call their “B330 modules”.
Now, can you guess why they might be called B330s?
Fraser: Is that the amount of volume?
Pamela: Yeah.
Fraser: 330 cubic meters?
Pamela: Just nice. Yep. Just keep it nice and simple.
And so, their Nautilus B330s – is what they’re calling them – are going to be an easy-peasy way of basically, with three launches and however long it takes to get the air lock up, having a giant space station that is close to free – again.
And the issue that they’re running in to is they just need the launches because they actually have big plans for something they’re calling “The Olympus”, which is a BA2100 for – Guess.
Fraser: 2,100 cubic meters? Is it cubic meters or cubic feet? No, it’s cubic meters.
Pamela: Cubic meters.
Fraser: Yeah, it’s cubic meters.
Pamela: Yeah.
Fraser: Now, let’s talk about the Olympus. 2100. What will it take to put that into space?
Pamela: Sadly, it’s going to take SLS’s heavy-lift vehicle actually getting fully put together and having available launches and that’s something that’s currently just not in the cards. SLS has very, very few launches scheduled and so, while this thing could go up – shouldn’t be too hard for them to build, given everything else they’ve done. We don’t currently have a working rocket it could fly on and –
Fraser: Right. I mean, it’s going to weigh between 70 to 90 tons. So, you’re going to need, as you said, the SLS. You’re going to need a Falcon Heavy. You’re going to need –
Pamela: It’s too big for the Falcon Heavy.
Fraser: Is it really? Oh, okay.
Pamela: Yeah.
Fraser: So, maybe they should make it a little smaller and fit it on a Falcon Heavy.
Pamela: Well, this is why they have their BA330s – just keep plugging them together.
Fraser: Yeah. Yeah, exactly.
So, now, are these going to be attached to the International Space Station or are these going to be stand-alone machines?
Pamela: They’re looking to be stand-alone. And this is another one of the things that’s holding us up is Bigelow, for a while, was playing with having its own launch vehicles but, really, they make inflatables; they make tents for outer space. And without having launch vehicles, they’re on the ground.
So, currently, they could launch on Dragon, they could launch on a Russian rocket, but what we don’t have is a human-certified, commercial way to get tourists into space, other than the very expensive Russians. And with the Russians, you’re looking at 10s of million dollars per human to get into outer space. And that’s not a good way to spend one night in a hotel.
Fraser: Right, right.
And this is the, sort of the – I mean, this is what Bigelow is really hoping for is to develop an orbital hotel; a station – you know, a 2100, right? It’ll have twice the volume of the current International Space Station delivered on one rocket and then it will just inflate.
Pamela: Yeah, it’s kind of awesome.
Fraser: Yeah.
Pamela: So, what their hope is – to eventually get to the stage that it will be $1 million for one night in their on-orbit hotel or fairly reasonable numbers – cheaper than the flight up on a Russian spacecraft – to rent out, like, half a module or even, perhaps, an entire module.
So, this starts to get interesting where you can imagine, not just the rich, uber 1-percenters going and spending the night in space, but you start to be able to imagine, like, a university considering, instead of spending $18 million building another Hobby-Eberly Telescope – instead, putting a bunch of scientists on a commercial inflatable for a little while.
Fraser: Yeah. That’s kind of crazy.
Pamela: Yeah. What it does to the price is just absolutely phenomenal. And it also starts to make other things look possible.
So, we are looking at ideas for doing inflatable habitats when you get to Mars – partially bury that sucker and then blow it up. But, like, inflate it; don’t explode it.
Fraser: Yeah. No, don’t blow it up. Yeah.
Pamela: And –
Fraser: And the moon.
Pamela: Yeah, it makes the moon – all of these things. If you don’t have to take things that are solid and you can just stuff them in the bottom of your rocket ship – I mean, this is like everything they tell traveler to do, these things do. You don’t want to pack solid, empty objects. Who wants to do that? But that’s what they did with the ISS.
Sorry, I’m about to go into “rant” mode, as someone who travels frequently.
This is just such an obvious thing to do and we just haven’t gotten it human certified yet. But that’s what they’re doing; they’re human certifying it. And I’m going to stop being overly enthusiastic now.
Fraser: Right.
But, I mean, I think the future of human habitation – human habitation modules in space – is going to be these inflatable modules. The costs are so cheap. The ability to have something that is small and then have it inflate on orbit to create a much larger volume. As you said, the potentially increased levels of protection that you can get from it – there’s a lot of really good reasons to go with this inflatable concept. And you could, theoretically, take more. Have them not inflated and then, as your space expands, just inflate another module, inflate another module – and fill it up and get it ready and prepared.
So, I do really feel like a big chunk of the future is going to be these inflatable habitats.
I mean, kudos to Robert Bigelow and team. They’ve gone through a pretty rough time. I mean, they have been planning this as long as I’ve been reporting on space exploration, right? And I’ve been doing this for almost 18 years, right?
Pamela: But they’re one of the sleeper heroes.
Fraser: Absolutely, yeah.
Pamela: Like, everyone knows about Elon Musk, everyone knows about the Amazon dude and we know the rich geniuses that are loud.
Fraser: Yeah, yeah.
Pamela: Bigelow is quietly going through doing all the steps: Genesis I – flew, worked; Genesis II – flew, worked.
Fraser: Yeah.
Pamela: Their BEAM is working.
Fraser: Yeah, yeah. And it is feasible to take a much larger module, attach it to the Space –
And I remember Bigelow went through some pretty tough times about – I guess it was about ten years ago – and they were expecting launches to be happening before they did and they had to lay off a big chunk of their workforce. But they didn’t go under. They kept going.
So, I think you’re exactly right. It’s sort of one of the less-mentioned heroes of this whole sort of space age. And I’ll bet, as we look into the future, we’re going to see a ton of the habitats in the future made with this inflatable module.
What are some of the other, I guess, technological developments that would take this to the next level? I mean, there’s radiation protection. Are there ways that we can sort of get help in that area as well?
Pamela: So, this is where the materials, designers and thin-film experts out there really come into play.
The idea that we can start looking at what aspects of a material make it good radiation shielding. And, at the atomic level, think through: What do we need to do to make thin, light radioactive-particle-protecting cloth? This is a new way of thinking. And, while it’s still not something that you can simply put on a skin suit and you’re protected from radiation, it’s getting to the point where you now just have multiple layers of materials that each protect against something slightly different; that is too cumbersome to wear but not too cumbersome to live within.
We still have a ways to go before we’re ready to go to Mars but this new way of thinking is really kind of exciting, where you’re starting to think of: What can I do with Kevlar and Mylar and vinyl and how many hydrogen atoms can I cram into this artificial synthetic material?
Fraser: And, you know, start to create layers, right? So, you could have multiple layers and you could even do things like put water in between the outer layer and the inner layer and then you’ve got the inflatable part inside – and water is one of the best forms of radiation protection.
So, we’ve really just begun to figure out: What are the potential applications and how you can build those layers. And we may end up at this place where it’s this standard set of layers that are always launched and they’re always used and they’ve got the right Kevlar, they’ve got the right Mylar, they’ve got the place for the water, some kind of radiation protection built in – plumbing and circuitry and all that kind of stuff – and that’s just a standard thing. And you launch into space and you get inside. You know?
I imagine astronauts in giant inflatable hamster balls, bouncing around on the surface of the moon. They don’t have to put on a spacesuit; they just bounce around inside this ball.
Pamela: Hamster balls, yeah.
That is actually truly delightful if you’ve ever seen any of the videos of people, like, rolling down hills in hamster balls for humans.
Fraser: Yeah, exactly. Make them clear.
Pamela: Where it does get tricky with these inflatables is, because they aren’t rigid, when you start filling them with liquid, you have things that jiggle like Jell-O – which leads to all sorts of momentum issues. So, we need to be careful and figure out how to make things rigid enough that we don’t end up with all sorts of crazy rotations accidentally happening. We need proper support, you might say.
But these are solvable issues and, while it may not necessarily be good, momentum-wise, to fill the outer part with a variable layer of a semi-compressible liquid, these are solvable problems.
Fraser: Imagine the jiggling.
Pamela: Astronauts in Jell-O. We’re talking about astronauts in Jell-O now.
Fraser: Yeah, exactly. Exactly.
Alright. Well, that’s – It’s pretty exciting. I cannot wait until this moves forward. Pamela, thank you so much and we’ll talk to you next week.
Pamela: Sounds great, Fraser. Talk to you later.
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[End of Audio]
Duration: 28 minutes

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