Inflatable hope: NASA looks forward to a blow-up space module

This NASA photo shows NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver and President and founder of Bigelow Aerospace Robert T. Bigelow as they talk while standing next to the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) during a media briefing where it was announced that the BEAM expandable space habitat technology will be tested on the International Space Station on January 16, 2013 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (AFP Photo/NASA)
NASA has spotted an evolution in space engineering that could save money for space exploration if privately developed inflatable space dwelling prove to be successful.

A new agreement between NASA and a Nevadan firm to add a privately built module to the International Space Station could evolve into uses of the innovative technology beyond low-Earth orbit, space agency and company officials said on Wednesday.

NASA’s $17.8 million venture with Bigelow Aerospace to build an inflatable module, the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), is planned to be tested at the ISS in 2015.

California-based SpaceX company will help BEAM make it to orbit by providing a Falcon 9 rocket. Once in space, the module will be installed on an open dock of the station's Node 3 by uniting the module using a robotic arm.

The Beam weighs around 1,360 kilograms and is about 4 meters long and 3.2 meters wide.

Bigelow Aerospace has so far spent around $250m to develop inflatable space habitation. It has preliminary agreements with seven non-US space and research agencies in the UK, the Netherlands, Australia, Singapore, Japan, Sweden and the UAE.

NASA has placed high hopes in private industries to develop ways to take its astronauts to and from the space station. That service is now provided by Russia at a cost of more than $60 million per person.