ILC Dover Pioneers Cutting-Edge Space Technology

The Delaware-based company is currently working on inflatable habitats that could be used to house astronauts.

In a recent test of an inflatable habitat that could allow humans to live in the vacuum of space, the structure violently blew apart, sending tatters of high-tech material flying.

The scientists and manufacturers who had worked for years on this project were thrilled.

The explosion wasn’t an accident but rather the natural result of a remarkably strong inflatable structure tested to the limits of its endurance.

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Delaware–based company ILC Dover is perhaps best known for helping create the spacesuits for the first moonwalk by Neil Armstrong and his crew in 1969. It has now teamed up with the company Sierra Space on what could be the future of space stations and planetary homes—a layered fabric capsule that can pack small for launch and then inflate into a much larger, livable area. This reduces the time and expensive multiple launches needed to build structures in space out of more traditional rigid materials.

The habitat, formally called a Large Integrated Flexible Environment, was inflated until it blew apart like a giant balloon in what’s called an ultimate burst pressure test. Pressures reached 77 psi before the structure tore apart, four times higher than NASA’s recommended safety levels.

“This was absolutely a huge milestone,” says James Kirwan, program manager for habitats at ILC Dover. It was the first test at this scale (a third the size of the International Space Station) and lets developers know they’re on the right track.

Courtesy of ILC Dover

The fabric layer tested is made with Vectran, a chemically spun, high-performance webbing similar to Kevlar, Kirwan explains.

Inflatables might seem particularly vulnerable in space, where even tiny bits of flying debris can inflict huge damage, but this is nothing like a parade float. The end product, which will house astronauts, will have an 18-inch-thick protective layer made of Kevlar and other similar materials, Kirwan says.

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The hope is that these inflatables can eventually be used on privately owned space stations in near–Earth orbit and habitations on the moon, planets and beyond. After more tests, the goal is to have the tech deployed into space within the next few years.

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