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Astronauts may bounce off walls in new habitat

| Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013, 10:00 p.m.

LAS VEGAS — NASA is partnering with a commercial space company in a bid to swap out the cumbersome “metal cans” that now serve as astronauts' homes in space for inflatable, bounce-house-like habitats that can be deployed on the cheap.

A $17.8 million test project will send an inflatable room that can be compressed for delivery into a 7-foot tube to the International Space Station, officials said Wednesday 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 open the door to habitats on the moon and missions to Mars, said NASA engineer Glen Miller.

The agency chose Bigelow Aerospace for the contract because it is 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 before getting into the space business in 1999 — framed the gambit as an out-of-this-world real estate venture. He hopes to sell his spare-tire habitats to scientific companies and wealthy adventurers looking for space hotels.

NASA is expected to install the 13-foot, blimp-like module in a space station port by 2015. Bigelow plans to begin selling stand-alone space homes the next year.

The new technology provides three times as much room as the existing aluminum models and also is easier and cheaper to build, Miller said.

Artist renderings of the module resemble a tinfoil clown nose grafted onto the main station. It is hardly big enough to be called a room. Miller described it as a large closet with padded white walls and gear and gizmos strung from two central beams.

Garver said on Wednesday that sending a small inflatable tube into space will be dramatically cheaper than launching a full-sized module.

“Let's face it; the most expensive aspect of taking things in space is the launch,” she said. “So the magnitude of importance of this for NASA really can't be overstated.”

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