In a spectacular display of scientific rigor and precision, Sierra Space, a commercial space company, has intentionally blown up an inflatable module for the fifth time. This module could potentially replace the International Space Station (ISS), which is set to retire in 2031. The ISS will be brought back to Earth, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean’s Point Nemo, the most remote oceanic location far from any landmasses. Sierra Space’s series of controlled explosions are part of a broader initiative to develop a safe, efficient, and robust space habitat for future astronauts.
The successor to the ISS is yet to be determined, but numerous ventures are currently in the planning stages. Many of these are joint efforts between space agencies and commercial companies, such as Starlab, a collaboration between NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA), and partnerships between aerospace firms like Voyager Space and Airbus. Sierra Space, backed by NASA funding, is endeavoring to create an inflatable living and working environment known as the LIFE habitat (Large Integrated Flexible Environment) for the Orbital Reef space station, a venture led by Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin.
The Future of Space Habitats: Inflatable Space Modules
The future of space habitation may be inflatable, as demonstrated by Sierra Space, a commercial company that has successfully conducted its fifth intentional explosion of an inflatable space module. This module is a part of the Orbital Reef space station, a project spearheaded by Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin. The ambitious project is described as a ‘mixed-use business park in space’ and is being developed as a potential replacement for the soon-to-be-retired International Space Station (ISS).
Replacing the International Space Station
The ISS, beloved by many, is set to retire in 2031. Its last journey will be a fiery descent into the Pacific in an area known as Point Nemo, or the Oceanic Pole of Inaccessibility. There is still no established successor for the ISS, but several projects are in the works, most of which are collaborative efforts between space agencies and commercial companies. Among these are Starlab, a joint venture between NASA and the ESA, and aerospace firms Voyager Space and Airbus.
Sierra Space’s Innovative Approach
Sierra Space is aiming to create a flexible living and working environment for future astronauts with its Large Integrated Flexible Environment (LIFE) habitat, as part of the Orbital Reef. The company recently performed an Ultimate Burst Pressure (UBP) test on a one-third-scale model of the module. The results were promising, with the module withstanding pressures more than a third higher than the standard requirement—an almost 20% improvement on their previous design.
Designing for Safety and Comfort
Safety is a priority for Sierra Space, with senior director of engineering, Shawn Buckley, explaining their approach: "We’re failing to succeed, because we want to make sure they’re robust and safe. How do we make them safe in space? We fail them on Earth." The test also included a metal ‘blanking plate’, a stand-in for potential windows, robotic arms, or antennas. The modules are designed to be small upon launch, inflating once in space, and will include at least two windows for crew members to help with confinement and to enjoy the view of Earth.
NASA’s Ongoing Projects
While NASA continues to support the development of new space stations, the agency is far from retiring. A significant focus for NASA is sending humans back to the Moon and eventually Mars. A crucial part of this plan is the Lunar Gateway, a space station near the Moon that will serve as an outpost for astronauts traveling to the lunar surface and beyond.
The future of space habitation is evolving, with innovative designs like inflatable modules becoming a plausible solution for long-term space living. Sierra Space’s successful testing and improvement of their LIFE habitat show promise for the development of the Orbital Reef. As the retirement of the ISS approaches, it’s reassuring to see several potential successors in development. It’s an exciting time for space exploration and habitation, as we continue to push the boundaries of technological advancements and our understanding of living in space.