This year marks the 230th anniversary of the first manned balloon flight, conducted by the Montgolfier brothers. The brothers wisely used the Marquis d’Arlandes as a test subject rather than either of themselves. At the time, it probably didn’t enter their wildest imaginings that one day people might live within balloons in space.
But balloons might be the future of space habitation if the trial of the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), to be launched in 2015, is successful. Developed by Bigelow Aerospace, the new design will form an additional room at the International Space Station. A low-cost, expandable module, the BEAM weighs 1300 kgs less than same-sized, rigid, traditional modules and is inflated to full size with pressurised air when in space.
Measuring about 4 metres long and 3.5 metres in diameter, the revolutionary new design uses materials potentially far more effective at protecting astronauts from harm during solar storms. The currently-used metal structures can produce heavy secondary particles that pierce the human body.
The initial tests will assess how well the structure maintains a stable temperatures and withstands radiation, and whether Space Station air contaminants collect in it.
The Montgolfier brothers would have been amazed, but would probably have sent up a test subject before venturing there themselves.