What would mainstream space tourism actually look like?
While companies such as Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic and Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin are at work developing ships that could take paying customers up into space within the next couple of years, where will people stay once they're actually up there? A prototype for an inflatable space hotel set to make its way to the International Space Station next week could provide the answer.
On April 8, SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket-powered Dragon spacecraft will launch from Cape Canaveral to deliver the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM, along with food and supplies, to the ISS.
Built by the Las Vegas-based Bigelow Aerospace, BEAM is a smaller, experimental version of the B330, which the firm describes as "the first private space habitat." It looks like a giant white balloon that wouldn't be out of place at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Once it arrives for its two-year testing period, BEAM will be attached to the space station and inflated to its full size -- 14,000 kilograms with a length of 4.01 meters and diameter of 3.23 meters. The astronauts will regularly monitor BEAM to see how it stands up to threats such as radiation and debris from meteoroids.
So while it's not quite space's answer to the Plaza just yet, what the astronauts learn may just lay the groundwork for vacations on Mars.