Full-scale LIFE habitat at NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, before the ultimate burst pressure test. Credits: Sierra Space, NASA Marshall.

Successful Full-Scale UBP Test for Sierra Space LIFE Habitat

Sierra Space completed the UBP Test of a full-scale version of the LIFE space habitat, a crucial step toward NASA’s certification for human spaceflight

In December 2023, a full-scale LIFE module, developed by Sierra Space, successfully underwent the Ultimate Burst Pressure (UBP) test, exceeding NASA minimum safety requirements for softgoods habitats of 60,8 psi by 27%, reaching 77 psi before bursting. Following the first five small-scale tests, this experiment demonstrated the habitat’s capabilities and opened avenues for further structural enhancements.

The future of human spaceflight is inflatable

The first inflatable module certified for human spaceflight by NASA was the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), built by Bigelow Aerospace and based on a previous NASA project, the TransHub. The habitat was attached to the ISS in April 2016, inflated successfully in June 2016, and then used as an additional storage unit. Since its performance exceeded expectations, BEAM will stay operational until 2028, as a recent engineering assessment has certified.

The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) is pictured attached to the International Space Station. Credits: NASA.
The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) is pictured attached to the International Space Station. Credits: NASA

Sierra Space LIFE shares a similar concept with BEAM and uses the same kevlar-like material called Vectran for the inflatable pressure shell. This section is built in collaboration with ILC Dover, the longtime producer of soft goods for various NASA missions, from Apollo spacesuits to Mars Exploration Rover airbags.

In its version LIFE 1.0, the space habitat launches on a conventional rocket in its compact configuration, and after reaching the intended position in space, it unfolds and swells up to its final dimensions (length 6,2 m; diameter 8,2 m; volume 283,2 m3). It can accommodate up to four astronauts, providing room for science experiments, exercise equipment, a medical center, and even a system to produce fresh vegetables, named Astro Garden.

LIFE habitat inflated in space, artistic illustration. Credits: Sierra Space.
LIFE habitat inflated in space, artistic illustration. Credits: Sierra Space

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Orbital Reef and inflatable space stations

Sierra Space has been working to bring LIFE habitat in space for many years. The first full-scale prototype was constructed in 2019, and it went through many rounds of improvements, thanks also to the last five UBP tests of the small-scale test article, LIFE 0.3. The latest test adds precious information about improving the habitat’s structural integrity, aiming to certify soft goods for flight by 2025.

IMG4 Orbital Reef station, an artist illustration. Credits: Blue Origin, Sierra Space.
IMG4 Orbital Reef station, an artist illustration. Credits: Blue Origin/ Sierra Space

LIFE will be one of the main components of the Orbital Reef space station, in development with Blue Origin. With the following versions, LIFE 2.0 and LIFE 3.0, Sierra Space intends to “make a paradigm shift in space habitation” by expanding beyond Low Earth Orbit, such as in cislunar, lunar, and deep space.

“We are driving the reinvention of the space station that will shape a new era of humanity’s exploration and discovery in Low Earth Orbit and beyond. Sierra Space’s inflatable space station technology offers the absolute largest in-space pressured volume, the best unit economics per on-orbit volume, and lowest launch and total operating costs.”

— Tom Vice, Sierra Space CEO

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Giancarlo Albertinazzi

Giancarlo Albertinazzi

Space Ambassador, Terranaut, Future Spacepolitan, Writer of Becoming Spacepolitans Blog

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