Watch a space habitat prototype for Orbital Reef explode into pieces in dramatic video

Orbital Reef is one of NASA's in-development successors for the ISS.
Chris Young
An artist's impression of Orbital Reef.
An artist's impression of Orbital Reef.

Blue Origin 

Sierra Space, the company developing a new space station called Orbital Reef alongside Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin, just blew up a small prototype for an inflatable astronaut habitat, a recent press statement (Dec .13) reveals.

Worry not, space habitat enthusiasts, as the explosion was intentional and it was carried out to make Orbital Reef as safe as possible.

The company conducted what it calls the "ultimate burst pressure test" (UBP) as part of the development of Orbital Reef, which is one of several privately-developed successors to the International Space Station that have been funded by NASA.

The inflatable habitat prototype, called Large Integrated Flexible Environment, or LIFE, stood in for a specific module of the Orbital Reef station during the explosive test.

Blowing up a space habitat prototype

The recent test constitutes the second time Sierra Space has purposefully blown up a habitat module prototype, having carried out a similar test in July.

"This second successful UBP test proves we can demonstrate design, manufacturing, and assembly repeatability, all of which are key areas for certification," Shawn Buckley, Sierra Space's LIFE chief engineer and senior director of engineering, said in the company's statement.

Sierra Space's UBP test took place on Nov. 15. in the flame trench of a Saturn 1 and 1B test stand at the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. In other words, the Orbital Reef station tests took place in the same area where NASA tested rockets for the Apollo moon program in the 1960s.

Sierra Space says that initial analysis of the test shows that it was a success. The prototype was required to survive above the burst pressure of 182.4 pounds per square inch (psi) set by NASA.

The US space agency contracted Sierra Space to blow up the two prototype modules this year, each of which is smaller than the ones that will eventually be deployed on Orbital Reef. The July prototype had a burst pressure of 192 pounds per square inch (psi), while the November prototype had a maximum burst pressure of 204 psi.

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NASA's bid for an ISS successor

Last year, NASA announced three contracts for private space firms totaling 415 million dollars to develop US-operated successors to the International Space Station. Aside from Orbital Reef, it is also helping to fund space station projects led by Northrop Grumman and Nanoracks.

The space agency made the call for new space station projects over concerns that the ISS is functioning on aging technology, though the need for new orbital laboratories has been accelerated by Russia's war in Ukraine and the ensuing diplomatic fallout — which extended to space.

Now that this year's two UBN tests are out of the way, Sierra Space now plans to carry out burst tests on full-size habitat prototypes next year. The company aims to eventually carry astronauts to and from the Orbital Reef station using its in-development Dream Chaser spacecraft.