Geekend: Bouncy Castles in Space

David Wagner, Managing Editor | 1/25/2013 | 53 comments

David Wagner
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.

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David Wagner   Geekend: Bouncy Castles in Space   1/30/2013 1:58:00 PM
Re: The kevlar counts
@kstaron- I think the first house on Mars will be a bouncy castle if this experiment works. One of the possible plans discussed for a quick shelter for astronauts on Mars would be an inflatable shelter that could be deployed quickly from the side of the landing craft.

One of the major issues after such a long flight in microgravity would be muscle and bone density loss.

Astronauts would have to exercise during the trip, but even so, they're libel to be rather weak and prone to injury when they arrive. Building shelter would be nearly impossible because of a lack of supplies and phsyical mobility.

A shelter where astronauts could spend some time acclinating is essential. A rigid structure would be much harder to deploy.
David Wagner   Geekend: Bouncy Castles in Space   1/30/2013 1:53:49 PM
Re: Just no way
@SaneIT- According to the site, it is launched flat and deploys. I think it has a folding rib structure.

I don't know about weight. They seem prety coy about it. But what i do know is that it takes up less space. And space is also a major premium when it comes to launching and deploying payloads.

kstaron   Geekend: Bouncy Castles in Space   1/30/2013 10:30:27 AM
The kevlar counts
Would I go up in a bouncy Wouild I go up in a kevlar reinforced bouncy castle...much more likely. Makes it seem like space debris would be no more problematic than a crumpled up napkin is to a real bouncy castle. Remind me to pick up a nice dignified pair of socks for the trip. so does it really look like the first house on Mars is going to be a bouncy castle?
SaneIT   Geekend: Bouncy Castles in Space   1/30/2013 8:51:23 AM
Re: Just no way
The comparison pictures really do a good job of showing just how much more space this design creates, but I didn't see anything about the weight comparison is that roughly equal?  I guess I need to go research more since I assumed that this would launch in a deflated state to make the best use of space but this looks like it has rigid structures on the outside of the main body so it looks like it launches full size.
Broadway   Geekend: Bouncy Castles in Space   1/29/2013 10:45:22 PM
Re: Just no way
@David, I am a bit of cynic and though I am no devotee of the free market religion and American capitalism, I do think that for space exploration to blow up, in the figurative sense, greed and ego and the need for fame and glory will all play key roles for the next generation of conquistadors.
tinym   Geekend: Bouncy Castles in Space   1/29/2013 2:42:07 PM
Re: Just no way
@Broadway good point about contractors in Iraq. They were a plenty.
David Wagner   Geekend: Bouncy Castles in Space   1/29/2013 12:44:32 PM
Re: Just no way
@SaneIT- I'm sure they've put one years of knowledge of inflatables on Earth into this. I'm sure there are multiple cells so if you lose one, the whole thing doesn't go. I'm sure they have rigid structures on the inside to give it some integrity.

You can see a picture of it on the Bigelow site here:

You can see the cells and floors, not to mention the normal work structures. This thing while filled with air and not made of metal is built to last. And two test vehicles have lasted in space for several years, granted with no one inside.
SaneIT   Geekend: Bouncy Castles in Space   1/29/2013 7:57:41 AM
Re: Just no way
After seeing some "repair" techniques from other dangerous fields I wouldn't doubt if a glove, tape and gum don't become part of the tool kit for an inflatable space station.  One thing I'm looking up that I can't find is how they plan to keep it inflated, they are talking about something much larger than your average bouncy castle.  I assume that they will have chambers that act like pressure tanks built into the station but when you think about the difference between a leak on a bouncy castle in your yard versus a space station I'd want some assurance that Dimitry slipping and putting a knife through a wall isn't going to result in a horror movie scenario.
David Wagner   Geekend: Bouncy Castles in Space   1/29/2013 12:04:25 AM
Re: Just no way
@Broadway- I generally agree that there are plenty of adventerous people, but it is interesting you think of it as a for profit venture. We certainly romanticize our astronauts more than that. I wonder if we should?
David Wagner   Geekend: Bouncy Castles in Space   1/29/2013 12:03:08 AM
Re: But how will you make the pizza?
@Susan- I wouldn't go to space without pizza so I hope so.
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