An inflatable moon-orbiting habitat could be happening sooner than you think

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Sep 3, 2019, 8:14 AM EDT (Updated)

Ever jumped on a moonwalk? That inflatable thing you remember bouncing around on as a kid (probably after ingesting enough sugar to send you to the moon) is just about to get more literal.

There could actually be an inflatable habitat orbiting the moon not too far in the future if Bigelow Aerospace and United Launch Alliance (ULA, or what happens when Boeing and Lockheed Martin join forces) get their new collaboration to take off. The B330 expandable module looks something like a silver foil balloon, but this could be what brings astronauts back to the moon for the first time since Apollo 17—and eventually lands them on Mars.

“Our lunar depot plan is a strong complement to other plans intended to eventually put people on Mars,” said Bigelow Aerospace president Robert Bigelow. “It will provide NASA and America with an exciting and financially practical success opportunity that can be accomplished in the short term. This lunar depot could be deployed easily by 2022 to support the nation’s re-energized plans for returning to the moon.”

This won’t be the first time one of these space balloons is launched. NASA first inflated the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) prototype on the International Space Station last year. While BEAM took an eternal seven hours to inflate, the advantage of using such a module, which can fold to about a fifth its size when deflated, is that it is incredibly compact and almost weightless compared to metal alternatives. Astronauts will have more legroom. Spacecraft carrying these to the moon or anywhere else will also be more cost-effective because they will need less fuel.

BEAM just got leveled up with the B330, which stands alone but can still attach to the ISS and other spacecraft. Multiple B330s can also be linked to each other. Bigelow plans to launch it into low-Earth orbit on a Vulcan 562 rocket before using ULA’s lift capability, which also involves launching double Vulcan Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage (ACES) craft loaded with cryogenic propellant, to launch it into lunar orbit. While the module is still hovering above Earth, all propellant will then be transferred to one of the ACES, which will then attach to the B330 and fly it to the moon.

Beyond being a lunar way station, Bigelow believes the B330 could someday be used in microgravity research, military defense, biohazard research, astronaut training, a hospital or recreation center for astronauts, and as a deep space habitat.

This floating moonwalk may still sound sci-fi now, but it will eventually have boots once again walking on the moon.

(via NBC Mach)