Nasa is partnering with a commercial space company in a bid to replace the cumbersome "metal cans" that serve as astronauts' homes in space with inflatable bounce-house-like habitats that can be deployed on the cheap.
A 17.8 million dollar test project will send an inflatable room that can be compressed for delivery into a 7-foot (2m) tube to the International Space Station, officials said during a news conference at North Las Vegas-based Bigelow Aerospace.
If the module proves durable during two years at the space station, it could help lead to habitats on the moon and missions to Mars, Nasa engineer Glen Miller said.
The agency chose Bigelow for the contract because it was the only company working on the inflatable technology, said Nasa Deputy Administrator Lori Garver. Founder and president Robert Bigelow, who made his fortune in the hotel industry and framed the space station gambit as an out-of-this-world real estate venture, also hopes to sell his inflatable habitats to scientific companies and wealthy adventurers looking for space hotels.
Nasa is expected to install the 10-foot (3m)-diameter, blimp-like module by 2015 at the space station. In 2016, Bigelow plans to begin selling inflatable space stations to countries looking to increase their presence in space.
Mr Miller said the new technology provides more room than existing options, and is quicker and cheaper to build. Once inflated, the habitat will be safer than the aluminium modules now in orbit, he said.
Artist renderings of the module resemble a large tinfoil clown nose stuck onto the main station. It is hardly large enough to be called a room. Mr Miller described it as a large closet with padded white walls and gear and gizmos strung from two central beams.
Nasa no longer enjoys the budget and public profile of its heyday. The agency outsourced rocket-building to private companies, retired it space shuttles in 2011 and now relies on Russian spaceships to transport American astronauts to and from the space station.
Ms Garver said it will be dramatically cheaper to spend a small inflatable tube into space than a full-sized module. Because the launch is the most expensive part of space exploration, she said, "the magnitude of the importance of this really can't be overstated."
Astronauts will test the habitat's ability to withstand heat, radiation, debris and other assaults. Some adventurous scientists might also try sleeping in it, Garver said.