When it comes to innovation in space travel and exploration, the first name that comes to mind is SpaceX. Ever since its launch, Musk and his crusade of believers have been working towards making affordable space travel, a reality.

As part of this crusade, Elon Musk’s company recently announced that they will be launching the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), which is essentially an inflatable habitat later this year.

The module is designed and manufactured by Bigelow Aerospace, a company founded over 15 years ago by Robert Bigelow. Bigelow Aerospace had first licensed inflatable habitat technology from NASA after Congress cancelled their expandable habitat project known as TransHab in 2000. But the concept of inflatable space modules dates back to over 50 years ago.

In fact, the first communications satellite launched by NASA, the Echo 1 was a spacecraft based on a balloon design.

For those of you worrying about micro-meteorites and space debris puncturing SpaceX’s new module, it’s practically impossible. The BEAM is armoured with multiple layers of soft goods including a bladder and micro-meteoroid and orbital debris (MMOD) shield. According to its makers, it can  resist small high velocity impacts as well as any rigid module on station. At full inflation, Bigelow says, BEAM’s internal volume will increase to ten times its launch volume.

The BEAM will be launched into outer space aiming for the International Space Station aboard the Dragon capsule on 8th of April. After a couple of days of launch, the Dragon will dock with the ISS. After a couple of weeks, the station’s robotic arm will grab BEAM from the trunk of Dragon and the inflatable module will be moved to Node 3. Inflation of BEAM will occur at the end of May or the beginning of June. This depends upon when the crew can fit it into their schedule.

The launch that Bogelow Aerospace is undertaking comes as part of a $17.8 million contract the company signed with the agency back in 2013.

The company had launched its first inflatable modules Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, in 2006 and 2007. They prototypes for what the company believed would be space hotels and other habitable bulks in space. They are still in orbit today but the technology from Bigelow was years ahead of their time. We still can’t expect private human-carrying vessels to leave the earth until 2018, at least.

The reborn concept of inflatable modules will revolutionize the sector of space travel and exploration. This could also hold the key to our journey to Mars which is fast approaching.

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