Sierra Space’s inflatable Large Integrated Flexible Environment (LIFE) modules meant to one day house astronauts orbiting Earth keep exploding—just as intended, and better than expected.
On Monday, the private startup announced the results from its latest Ultimate Burst Pressure (UBP) test meant to help ensure the LIFE module’s eventual final design will withstand the vacuum of space, as well as handle any unwanted encounters with micrometeorites. To celebrate, Sierra Space released a mini documentary on the most recent trial run, highlighting the module’s complexities and progress. Of course, if you want to just see the gigantic space station balloon-home go “kaboom,” just fast forward to the 5:55 minute mark.
On Monday, the private startup announced the results from its latest Ultimate Burst Pressure (UBP) test meant to help ensure the LIFE module’s eventual final design will withstand the vacuum of space, as well as handle any unwanted encounters with micrometeorites. Although similar experiments ran in the past, this marked the first UBP test on a full-scale LIFE prototype. Sierra Space inflated its roughly three-story tall, 27-foot-wide model until it popped with a force equivalent to 164 sticks of dynamite. What’s more, the explosion only occurred after succumbing to an internal pressure of 77 psi—about 27 percent over NASA’s mandated pressure resiliency for space station habitats.
The key to LIFE module’s promising construction is its reliance on highly advanced “softgoods” like Vectran, a resilient synthetic fiber spun from liquid crystal polymers that, once inflated, is stronger than steel. Upon deployment, the module’s framework is meant to be rigid and reliable enough to keep inhabitants insulated, safe, and comfortable while living in a space station’s low-Earth orbit environment.
The aced test arrives following two years of research, construction, and testing various smaller-scale versions of the inflatable space station module. Last September, for example, the private company released footage of a one-third scale prototype popping during a UBP test. If all goes as planned (still a big “if,” given funding, final plans, and the space industry’s habit to delay projects) Sierra Space’s LIFE modules could one day comprise portions of Blue Origin’s potential Orbital Reef station.
With the aging International Space Station’s looming 2030 retirement and subsequent de-orbit, NASA hopes to leave as little a gap as possible between orbital residency projects. This will likely come with a much larger reliance on private companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Sierra Space—hence the latter’s race to put final touches on the LIFE module. Sierra Space signed a reimbursable Space Act agreement with NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center late last year, and continues to conduct its LIFE module testing at the facility in Alabama. Meanwhile, NASA continues to work with Blue Origin, as well as Axiom Space on their own respective orbital station projects.
As wild as it may be to imagine a constellation of ostensibly superstrong, interconnected balloon tents as a space station, there are definite advantages to pursuing the design. For one thing, it would be much cheaper to both build and launch a module into orbit, given the current version’s ability to fit within a five-meter rocket. Once inflated, a single full-size LIFE module is roughly equivalent to one-third the volume of the ISS.
But why stop there? Sierra Space says it intends to “iterate on larger designs,” including a 1,400-cubic-meter variant packed into a seven-meter rocket—that alone would surpass the completed size of the ISS.