Called BEAM, for Bigelow Exandable Activity Module, they’re being made by Las Vegas-based Bigelow Industries, the Associated Press reports. NASA is spending $17.8 million to design, build and deliver the new modules to the ISS. During delivery, the units can be compressed into a 7-foot tube and then inflated on site.
The new module will be installed by 2015 and will then be tested for two years. If it holds up, others can then be deployed for projects as far afield as low-earth orbit and even habitats on the moon or Mars.
Astronauts using the new balloons will have three times as much space as the current, assembled-in-orbit aluminum-can modules they’re currently using. The modules also save significantly on time and money.
Bigelow Industries, founded by former hotelier Robert Bigelow, hopes to license the design to other space-interested governments as well as wealthy individuals hoping to build a space hotel.