Space station to get $17.8M inflatable addition

Bigelow's BEAM module is likely to be an upscale version of the already orbiting Genesis module - two of which have already flown into Earth orbit.

When you think of an 'inflatable habitat', images of a flimsy combination of tent and balloon might come to mind, but in the case of the habitats built by Bigelow Aerospace, their sturdiness and reliability have earned the company a $17.8 million grant from NASA to build an addition to the International Space Station.

"The International Space Station is a unique laboratory that enables important discoveries that benefit humanity and vastly increase understanding of how humans can live and work in space for long periods," said Lori Garver, Deputy Administrator for NASA, in the media advisory. "This partnership agreement for the use of expandable habitats represents a step forward in cutting-edge technology that can allow humans to thrive in space safely and affordably, and heralds important progress in U.S. commercial space innovation."

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Bigelow has already put two test habitats into low-Earth orbit — Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 — with the goal of building an orbiting space hotel — called Space Complex Alpha — set to launch in 2014 and be open for business by 2016. The company's plans have suffered setbacks, due to the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, competing with NASA for space on Russian Soyuz flights after that, and delays of SpaceX's Falcon launch vehicle. However, as of the successful launch and recovery of SpaceX's Dragon, Bigelow and SpaceX announced that they were teaming up to provide private missions to space.

The exact details of the NASA deal won't be made public until after the NASA/Bigelow press conference tomorrow, but with these kinds of private ventures becoming more common, it lays down the first stones on the path towards opening up space for everyone.