Sierra Space blows things up to prove that inflatable habitats are safe

Zoom in / Sierra Space's 300-cubic-meter inflatable habitat explodes at 77 pounds per square inch, five times the pressure it needs to handle in space.

Sierra Space says it has demonstrated in a ground test that a large-scale inflatable habitat for a future space station can meet NASA's recommended safety standards, clearing a technical gateway on the path toward building a commercial outpost in low Earth orbit.

During a December test at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, Sierra Space's 300-cubic-meter inflatable structure withstood five times the pressure it needed to handle in space. The so-called final explosion pressure test is designed to measure the limits of soft-goods technology being developed by Sierra Space along with ILC Dover, which has also built spacesuits for NASA.

The 27-foot (8.2 m) diameter inflatable structure exploded at 77 psi, exceeding NASA's recommended safety standard of 60.8 psi, which is four times the unit's true operating pressure at 15.2 psi. square inch.

Perhaps best known for developing the Dream Chaser space plane, Colorado-based Sierra Space also manufactures satellites and is one of several companies in the mix to help build a new commercial space station to replace the International Space Station.

“We are pleased with the results,” said Sean Buckley, senior engineering manager and chief technologist for Sierra Space's EarthSpace Systems Division. “Moving on from our sub-domain articles, we ran a series of tests to validate our architecture. And being able to get into the first full-scale LIFE (Large Integrated Flexible Environment) burst test, to meet a safety factor of 27 percent, was just an amazing accomplishment for the team.”

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Sierra Space is collaborating with Blue Origin on a commercial space station concept called Orbital Reef. If the companies see it to fruition, Orbital Reef could become a hub for research, manufacturing, tourism and other applications in low Earth orbit.

Sierra Space's inflatable technology is similar to the work performed by Bigelow Aerospace, which pioneered inflatable habitat technology for more than 20 years before laying off its entire workforce in 2020. Buckley worked on inflatable habitat technology at Bigelow for more than 10 years, then joined to her. Lockheed Martin for two years. In 2022, he assumed a leadership position overseeing the work of Sierra Space's space station.

Bigelow's design is centered around a 330-cubic-meter inflatable habitat, while Sierra Space's design is slightly smaller in size. Buckley said he couldn't definitively say whether the LIFE explosion test in December was the largest such test of an inflatable habitat design, because of limitations on what he could say about his previous work at other companies.

“I will say this is the largest publicly announced large-scale habitat in this architecture that is being tested,” he told Ars in an interview.

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