The workhorse of the space program for decades -- the aging US space shuttle -- has a cargo bay that measures 15 feet by 59 feet. It can launch the equivalent of six large SUVs 1,000 miles up into lower Earth orbit. That might sound like a lot space, but when NASA is trying to launch a new module for the International Space Station (ISS), that cargo space is a critically limiting factor.
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Which is why NASA has in the past few months been talking to Las-Vegas-based Bigelow Aerospace about producing a new module for the International Space Station based on a simple, space-saving concept: the balloon. When stowed in the space shuttle's cargo bay, the module would be deflated to save space. But once unloaded in orbit, the module would inflate like a very tall doughnut, providing a large ring of usable space for any number of tasks. The center of the doughnut would contain the structure and equipment to maintain the inflated module.