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Sierra Space unveils full-scale prototype of expandable space station structure
The first full-scale structural test milestone for Sierra Space's expandable space station technology occurred at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center on Dec. 12. (Photo: Sierra Space)
Sierra Space unveils full-scale prototype of expandable space station structure
by Clarence Oxford
Los Angeles CA (SPX) Jan 24, 2024

Sierra Space has completed an important test of its full-scale, expandable space station structure. The company, known for its innovative approach to space technology, alongside its exclusive softgoods technology partner ILC Dover, has been at the forefront of developing the LIFE (Large Integrated Flexible Environment) habitat. This structure, notable for its expandable "softgoods" design, has recently undergone rigorous testing, yielding impressive results that surpass NASA's stringent safety requirements.

In the Ultimate Burst Pressure (UBP) test, a critical evaluation for space habitats, the full-scale unit astonishingly reached 77 psi before failure, significantly exceeding NASA's recommended safety level of 60.8 psi by 27%. The structure, towering over 20 feet and encompassing a volume of 300 m3, roughly a third of the International Space Station's volume, stood as a testament to the potential of expandable space habitats.

Tom Vice, CEO of Sierra Space, underscored the significance of this achievement. "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," he stated. This advancement not only demonstrates Sierra Space's leadership in microgravity research but also offers a cost-effective and efficient solution for future space endeavors.

The LIFE habitat's design is notably compact, allowing it to be packed inside a standard five-meter rocket fairing, yet it inflates to the size of a three-story building in orbit. Its modular nature means that just three launches could create a space larger than the entire ISS. The company is also exploring larger designs, such as a 1400-cubic-meter version, which could surpass the ISS in size with a single launch.

2024 is set to be a year of aggressive testing for Sierra Space. They plan to conduct a series of UBP tests at both sub- and full-scale, focusing on the development of the primary Atmospheric Barrier and Micrometeoroid Orbital Debris (MMOD) layers. These tests are crucial for ensuring the safety and durability of the habitat in the challenging conditions of space.

Shawn Buckley, Senior Director of Engineering and Chief Technologist of EarthSpace Systems, highlighted the collaborative effort behind this success. "Our team has worked tirelessly to reach this point. Working with our key suppliers and strategic partners, Sierra Space has guided our collaborative effort and reached new heights with this latest UBP test," he said.

A key element of the LIFE habitat is its pressure shell, or restraint layer, comprised of Vectran straps and high-strength fabric materials. Vectran, known for its strength and durability, particularly in aerospace applications, contributes significantly to the habitat's robustness. This material has been thoroughly tested by Sierra Space and ILC Dover at various scales, ensuring its performance in space.

Rob Reed, President of Space and Engineered Solutions at ILC Dover, expressed pride in their role in this development. "The successful full-scale burst test is an undeniable leap toward a new reality of how humans live and operate in space," he remarked.

This test, supported by NASA via a Reimbursable Space Act Agreement, was conducted in Huntsville, Ala., adjacent to the historic Saturn 1/1B test stand.

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