Expandable space station module to undergo burst test

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Expandable space station hardware in testing at NASA Marshall Space Flight Center

Sierra Space is preparing for its biggest-ever “burst test” of its inflatable, expandable space station technology.

This endeavour marks a crucial step in Sierra Space’s co-development of Orbital Reef with Blue Origin, as the company plans to stress test a full-scale version of its LIFE habitat structure and bring the unit to failure under pressure. LIFE is constructed of high-strength softgoods materials, which are sewn and woven fabrics – primarily Vectran – that become rigid structures when pressurized on orbit. To date, Sierra Space has conducted five stress tests on subscale test articles; this next one will be 18x larger – nearly 300 m³ of pressurised volume.

Scheduled for December 2023 at the NASA Marshall Space Flight Centre in Huntsville, Alabama, the Ultimate Burst Pressure (UBP) test is expected to provide Sierra Space and the Orbital Reef team with critical data in support of NASA’s softgoods certification guidelines. The over-pressurisation to failure during the test will not only demonstrate the habitat’s capabilities but also open avenues for structural enhancements.

Sierra Space’s expandable space station module technology is highly scalable and flexible to all existing and planned launch vehicle fairing sizes. The softgoods structures launch packed inside conventional rocket fairings – 5m, 7m, 9m and beyond – inflating to capacity on orbit. Low-volume launches become high-volume space stations. The module volume will always be the square of its expansion diameter. For example, with a 2.5x expandable configuration, the volume would be 6.25x of a rocket fairing.

“Sierra Space’s inflatable space station module technology offers the absolute largest in-space pressured volume, the best unit economics per on-orbit volume and lowest launch and total operating costs,” said Sierra Space CEO Tom Vice. “Having the best unit economics bodes well for Sierra Space in microgravity research and product development – providing customers with the most attractive return on their investment.”

Softgoods integration into the test stand will be followed by transport, using the NASA KAMAG transporter tractor, to the historic testing location adjacent to the flame trench of the Saturn 1/1B test stand — where NASA tested rockets for the Apollo programme.

Setup and calibration of sensors and cameras, alongside operational run-throughs, will prepare for the full-scale UBP test in December 2023

Jonathan Newell
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