The partnership is another step toward outsourcing for NASA, which no longer enjoys the budget and public profile of its heyday. The agency has handed off rocket-building to private companies, retired it space shuttles in 2011 and now relies on Russian spaceships to transport American astronauts to and from the space station.
Astronauts will test the ability of the bladder, known as the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM, to withstand heat, radiation, debris and other assaults. Some adventurous scientists might also try sleeping in the spare room, which is the first piece of private real estate to be blasted into space, Garver said.
Bigelow said the NASA brand will enable him to begin selling Kevlar habitats several times the size of the test module.
"This year is probably going to be our kickoff year for talking to customers," he said. "We have to show that we can execute what we're talking about."Bigelow, who launched a small prototype of the module in 2006 after licensing the patent from NASA, will rely on Boeing Co. and Southern California rocket developer Space Exploration Technologies to provide transportation. A 60-day stay will cost $25 million, which doesn't include the $27.5 million it costs to get there and back. Bigelow predicted that the primary customers will be upwardly mobile countries including Brazil, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates that "have a difficult time getting their astronauts into orbit" and could use a private space station to barter and build up prestige. The biggest technological challenge will be transporting the collapsed module through the sub-zero temperatures of space without tearing or cracking any part of it, Miller said. When it arrives at the space station in 2015, scientists will blow it up and let it sit for a few days to test for leaks. If it does not hold as promised, NASA will take back a portion of the already bargain basement price it paid Bigelow.