Kapow! Inflatable space station module blows to pieces in video explosion

Sierra Space aimed to blow a space module apart on video, and delivered on that promise in spades.

The company completed its third module test on the journey to certify its module design for eventual spaceflight and to help develop a private space complex to replace the International Space Station (ISS). The accelerated systematic creep test, as the company termed the December trial, exceeded NASA's certification requirements.

"These results will propel us in 2023 as we mature the technology via full-scale development and continue toward full NASA certification," Sierra Space officials wrote in a statement Tuesday (Jan. 31).

Sierra Space's Large Integrated Flexible Environment, or LIFE, will form part of the Orbital Reef space station led by Blue Origin. Orbital Reef represents part of a small set of industry-led space stations that NASA gave early-stage funding to back in December 2021 as part of a plan to replace the aging ISS in the 2030s or so.

Related: NASA looks to private outposts to build on International Space Station's legacy

Sierra Space deliberately blew a prototype module to pieces in December 2022 as part of its certification journey for the Orbital Reef private space station. (Image credit: Sierra Space)

Sierra Space has done a trio of explosive tests so far for safety reasons, as NASA certification requires extensive ground testing to assure the design is safe for spaceflight. The December 2022 effort loaded the subscale test module up with air pressure and required the module to maintain pressure for at least 100 hours. The explosion took place after 150 hours, exceeding the requirement by 150%.

Previously in July and November, Sierra Space conducted two ultimate burst pressure tests that subjected test modules to ever-growing air pressure until they blew apart. Once the results from the December test are completed, Sierra plans a second subscale Systematic Accelerated Creep Test "early in 2023" and then full-scale testing later in the year, officials said in the release.

In photos: Inside Sierra Nevada's inflatable space habitat for astronauts in lunar orbit

Artist's illustration of Orbital Reef, a private space station project involving Blue Origin, Sierra Space and a number of other partners. (Image credit: Sierra Space/Blue Origin)

All tests were performed at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama adjacent to the flame trench of the Saturn 1/1B test stand, in the same zone where NASA tested rockets for the Apollo moon program of the 1960s and 1970s. The tests included Sierra Space, past spacesuit maker ILC Dover and NASA officials.

Sierra Space isn't the only space station module maker deliberately blowing things up for NASA. In December, for example, engineers at Lockheed Martin Space's Waterton Canyon facility in Colorado also exploded a test module for their own ultimate burst pressure test, although this module design is destined for a deeper-space destination as NASA seeks to expand its influence to the moon and beyond.

In 2021, NASA provided $415 million in funding split across three teams tasked with creating successor space stations to ISS: the Orbital Reef team led by Blue Origin that includes Sierra Space received $130 million, Nanoracks LLC's team received $160 million and Northrop Grumman's team garnered $125.6 million. 

An inflatable module is also in action right now on the ISS, in testing by Bigelow Space. The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM, arrived at its docking port in 2019 and receives periodic check-ups by ISS astronauts to ensure it is holding up well against the vacuum of space and solar radiation. 

Elizabeth Howell is the co-author of "Why Am I Taller?" (ECW Press, 2022; with Canadian astronaut Dave Williams), a book about space medicine. Follow her on Twitter @howellspace. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for Space.com for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace

  • Greg Ackerson
    ...required the module to maintain pressure for at least 100 hours. The explosion took place after 150 hours, exceeding the requirement by 150%.

    It exceeded by 50%. For it to have exceeded by 150%, it would have needed to run for 250 hours.
  • AndrewEvans01
    Thank you for calling it out! It bugged me and I immediately jumped to the comments. :)
  • Dearth Serious
    This article needs more background research. Bigelow Aerospace has been defunct with no employees for 2 years and transferred the BEAM module to NASA 1 year ago.