Would you ride an inflatable space ship all the way to Mars? If you said no, then you may never get to Mars, because one potential way to get there would be in a giant bouncy castle.
OK, to be honest the bouncy castle line is not mine -- it comes from this article about NASA giving $18 million to Bigelow Aerospace to test an inflatable module for the International Space Station. But I’m running with it, because as a parent I can’t help but enjoy the idea of a module in the space station where you have to take off your shoes before you can play in it. I picture the little shoe cubbies outside of it like they have at McDonald’s.
Seriously though, NASA’s attempting a two-year study of an inflatable module for the space station, starting in 2015. They’re going to test leakage, radiation, durability, and feasibility of using inflatable (or as Bigelow prefers, expandable) space vehicles. When they’re done with it, it will simply detach and burn up in the atmosphere.
I know what some of you are thinking... I wouldn’t get into a tiny rubber thing in space. There’s no way the only thing between me and a total vacuum is a glorified balloon animal.
Interestingly enough, according to Bigelow, the idea of inflatables in space goes back to the 1950s when America made inflatable communications satellites the size of 10-story buildings. Because materials science couldn’t keep up, the idea was scratched for awhile. But a good portion of the International Space Station was original planned to be expandable. Budgets were cut in 2000 and more traditional “aluminum can” designs were used.
The problem with the tin can design is that they are much more expensive, heavier, smaller, and less safe.
Yup, despite the fact that they’re not made of metal, blow-ups are safer. The aluminum skin on space craft is actually very thin, because in space they do need to be lightweight but they don't need to be all that thick. The “rubber” (actually an advanced “softgoods” material that uses Kevlar, among other things) provides better ballistics protection against small debris and meteorites than a metal case would. And even more importantly, metal leaves astronauts very vulnerable to radiation. The “rubber” products in inflatable space modules scatter the radiation and make astronauts safer. Given that radiation is a common space danger, this is extremely important.
Given the entire price of a space station module -- $18 million -- you can see the obvious other big advantage. Given that the cost of an ISS module is counted in the billions, $18 million seems like a pittance. (Granted, some of the cost of an ISS module includes ground monitoring and other costs associated with operation not included in Bigelow’s $18 million price tag.)
Another issue is size. While we often discuss weight being the major obstacle to putting something into space, when we’re discussing things people will live in for a long time, size matters. Rigid, metal structures are more difficult to fly and put into place using traditional heavy lifting rockets. Expanding modules can be deployed far easier.
All of this would come in handy in a long trip to some place like Mars. Imagine how more likely it would be for astronauts to handle the emotional rigors of a year or more long space flight if they had more space to move. Think about the cramped spaces in capsules like you see in the Apollo missions. Imagine living in cramped spaced like that for 500 days. As these failed experiments isolation experiments have shown, it is very difficult.
Still, there’s a pretty big mental hurdle to get over here. The fact that you’re asking someone to live in space in an object they previously saw folded up like a sleeping bag is a pretty big leap. When you hear that NASA is building a big bouncy castle in space, you can’t help but wonder if it will be sponsored by Chuck E. Cheese. You expect to hear about the zero G ball pit next.
What do you think? Will our astronauts go to Mars in a giant bouncy castle? Will there be a slide? Can we land on Mars in a dignified way in our socks? Would you get into something like this? Or is it just a cute idea that will never work? Oh, and bonus trivia question -- what 80s one-hit wonder classic was re-worked for this Chuck E. Cheese video? Comment below.
Space travel is only interesting to a certain set of people,others find it terrifying. The chances of things actually going wrong is quite slim I I think but if things do go wrong, there's no turning back. That's the thing that has been keeping people away.
Anyways I thought NASA has stopped all of its space programmed for the foreseeable future. Doesn't this fall to that category?
using a bouncy ball to go into space doesn't seem like a bad idea. I guess nasa is trying to get us to mars anyway possible and any idea goes. I wouldn't want to be the first volunteer. I had no idea of the benefits of bouncy balls over our current spaceship technology, very interesting
@Nicky48 I'm totally with you. I'm not going into space, ever. And I have bad experience with inflatable things -- tires, air mattresses, balloons. They all get holes and deflate. Not something I want to happen in outer space. Then again, if I really could jump around in a flying bounce house in my last moments of life, that wouldn't be so bad.
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