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 full-scale UBP test unit reached 77 psi before it burst, which well exceeds (+27%) #NASA’s recommended level of 60.8 psi (maximum operating pressure of 15.2 psi multiplied by a safety factor of four).— Sierra Space (@SierraSpaceCo) January 22, 2024
Full video: https://t.co/5XumopCb0H@NASA_Marshall pic.twitter.com/WO4YyPUA05
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.
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.
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.
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