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Bigelow Aerospace

The BEAM, as seen in Jan. 17, 2013. It kind of looks like a silver pumpkin that you live in, in space.

© NASA/Reuters/Corbis

While the Henry Fords of the new space age compete to build an affordable spaceship, Robert T. Bigelow plans to build a place for passengers to hang their helmets: an inflatable, privately owned-and-operated space station.

Lightweight inflatables get around rockets' limited cargo space by packing a hefty habitat in a petite package. NASA floated the idea for years. In fact, the design for Bigelow's billowing bungalows derives from the space agency's patented TransHab, a resilient, inflatable habitat engineered for possible applications on Mars or the moon.

In January 2013, NASA announced a $17.8 million contract with the company to supply a Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM, to the International Space Station (ISS). The module, which measures 13 feet long and 10 feet in diameter (4 meters and 3 meters), with about 560 cubic feet (16 cubic meters) of interior space, packs down to about 1/10 that size during transport and, unlike solid structures, should not puncture when struck by micrometeorites [source: Chang].

Bigelow has already placed unmanned stations in orbit and plans to park one large enough to house a dozen people by late 2016 -- assuming the company can round up rockets to carry them [sources: Chang; Chang].

A little more than $26 million per person reserves digs for 60 days, transportation included. Still, it's a steal compared to the more than $70 million NASA pays for a single seat on a Soyuz spacecraft headed to the ISS [sources: Morring; Wall].

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