bubble! Watch an inflatable space station module explode on video
Sierra Space intentionally blew up a small prototype inflatable astronaut habitat to get ready for spaceflight.
The company has conducted what it calls an “ultimate explosion pressure test” (UBP) as it progresses along the long road to helping develop a private replacement for the International Space Station (ISS). The inflatable module, called the Large Integrated Flexible Environment, or LIFE, will form part of the larger orbital space station Reef led by Blue Origin. NASA seeks to replace the aging International Space Station in the 2030s with private stations led by industry, one of which is Orbital Reef.
The latest test was the second in 2022 to detonate a Sierra Space Module prototype on a tropical reef, following a similar procedure in July. Simply put, by testing a smaller prototype unit to its literal limit, engineers can make spaceflight safer for future astronauts.
“This second successful UBP test demonstrates that we can demonstrate design, fabrication and assembly capability, which are all key areas for certification,” Sean Buckley, Sierra Space’s LIFE Senior Engineer and Principal Director of Engineering, said in an emailed statement.
Related: NASA is looking to private outposts to build on the legacy of the International Space Station
The Sierra Space team detonated the module Nov. 15 inside the flame trench of the Saturn 1 and 1B test pad at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, and performed a blast test in the same area where NASA tested the rockets. The Apollo Moon Program in the 1960s and 1970s.
NASA and former space suit maker ILC Dover and Sierra Space worked together on the test. Analysis is ongoing, but early work shows Sierra Space has fulfilled its testing commitments, according to the company.
NASA has commissioned Sierra Space to detonate two prototype units, which are smaller than the ones that will be used at Orbital Reef and have maximum explosion pressures of 192 and 204 pounds per square inch (psi), respectively. Both modules easily weathered the 182.4 psi safety requirements set by NASA’s Tropical Reef Design.
Pictures: Inside an inflatable space habitat in the Sierra Nevada for astronauts in lunar orbit
A year ago, NASA awarded $415 million divided among three concepts for early private space station development. The money was split roughly evenly among the three teams: the Blue Origin-led Orbital Reef team featuring Sierra Space got $130 million, the Nanoracks LLC team got $160 million and the Northrop Grumman Systems Corp. team got $125.6 million.
Sierra Space plans to move forward with Orbital Reef development with Blue Origin in 2023 with intermittent testing on full-size prototypes. Sierra Space intends to use the Dream Chaser cargo plane and a manned version in the future to bring astronauts and supplies to the private complex.
Inflatable modules are already being tested on the International Space Station by Bigelow Space. the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM, which was shipped to orbit in 2019; International Space Station astronauts periodically assess its performance in orbit against solar radiation and the vacuum of space.
Elizabeth Howell is co-author of “Why am I taller (Opens in a new tab)? (ECW Press, 2022; with Canadian astronaut Dave Williams), a book on space medicine. Follow her on Twitter @tweet (Opens in a new tab). Follow us on Twitter @tweet (Opens in a new tab) or Facebook (Opens in a new tab).
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