LAS VEGAS — NASA is stepping up its commitment to commercial space projects with a first-of-its-kind agreement to buy a Bigelow Aerospace expandable habitat and attach it to the international space station (ISS) for a two-year test flight.

Privately owned Bigelow Aerospace, based in Las Vegas and operated by entrepreneur and hotelier Robert Bigelow, hopes to parlay the fixed-price, $17.8 million NASA contract into future work providing similar balloon-like structures for human missions to asteroids, the Moon and other destinations beyond low Earth orbit.

“When you talk about beyond low Earth orbit, long-duration exploration, you need large volumes to be able to conduct these missions, and yet you still have the challenges of limited space aboard rockets and limited mass. Expandable habitats deliver on both fronts,” said Bigelow Aerospace operations director Mike Gold.

The prototype, called the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM, is slated to fly in May 2015 aboard a Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) Dragon cargo flight.

“You have to like the synergy of a new commercial space company like SpaceX carrying a Bigelow module to the ISS,” Gold said.

Partnering with commercial companies rather than hiring them under traditional cost-plus-award fee contracts — a business model NASA adopted for its Commercial Crew Program to develop U.S.-based, low Earth orbit human space transportation — is one option for fleshing out the Space Launch System (SLS)-Orion deep-space initiative, which provides for a heavy-lift rocket and deep-space transportation capsule, but no habitation modules or landers.

“We’re going to get a lot of data and experience, not only just flying [BEAM], but deploying it and using it — information about how it could be used for the next steps in space,” said Sam Scimemi, director of the international space station program at NASA headquarters in Washington.

Funding for the Bigelow prototype, a windowless, pumpkin-shaped module about the size of a large walk-in closet, comes not from the space station program but from NASA’s technology development budget.

“If we go to Mars with such a structure, we need to know how it holds humidity, how to clean it,” Scimemi said.

Lightweight fabric structures that can be expanded in orbit offer huge cost savings over comparably sized but heavier metal spacecraft, which are more expensive to launch.

BEAM, for example, weighs about 1,400 kilograms, but expands to about 4 meters in length and 3.2 meters in diameter to provide about 16 cubic meters of interior space.

“The most expensive aspect of getting things in space is the launch. An expandable capability gives you that volume, that habitat you would have to launch fully otherwise. So the magnitude of importance of this for NASA really can’t be overstated,” NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver said at a press conference at Bigelow’s North Las Vegas, Nev., facility Jan. 16.

Tests show the soft-sided habitats also provide a potentially safer radiation environment for astronauts than metal structures, which can produce body-piercing secondary heavy particles during solar storms and other cosmic radiation events.

NASA studied inflatable space habitats in the 1990s under its TransHab program, with the idea of developing a low-cost crew quarters for space station astronauts. The fabric, which includes layers of bulletproof material similar to Kevlar, proved resistant to micrometeoroid and orbital debris impacts, but the project fell victim to budget and political issues. Congress canceled the program in 2000.

Bigelow later licensed the technology from NASA and invested $250 million of its own funds to develop it.

The company, which was founded in 1999 and currently employs about 75 people, launched its first prototype, Genesis 1, in 2006, and a follow-on spacecraft, Genesis 2, a year later.

BEAM, Bigelow’s third orbital prototype, will be attached to the station’s Tranquility connecting node and inflated with pressurized air to form a rigid, cylinder-shaped, balloon-like dwelling that will remain part of the station for at least two years.

“It’s one of our classical roles to advance technology so the private sector can utilize it. In this case, we’re going to be able to benefit from it again,” Garver said.

NASA and Bigelow are interested in getting information about how the structure not only withstands radiation and maintains a stable temperature in orbit, but whether the fabric mildews, for example, or becomes a place where contaminants in the station’s air collects.

“Things grow in space that we don’t want to grow and we’ve got no experience with this type of fabric,” Scimemi said.

“Will it become all moldy and mildewed because of the humidity inside space station or not? Can we clean it? There’s a whole lot of stuff other than just ‘Will it be structurally sound when you put people in it,’ which Bigelow can’t do with the two spacecraft they have in orbit right now,” Scimemi said.

“Nobody is breathing, humidity, shaving, taking showers, eating. None of that is happening, except on space station,” he said.

For Bigelow, BEAM not only may mean more business from NASA, it also will serve as a high-profile demonstration to woo other space agencies, research institutes and even individuals wishing to lease space aboard planned free-flying inflatable habitats owned, operated and staffed by Bigelow personnel.

“The cachet value of NASA is a feather in anyone’s cap,” Bigelow said. “We’re very appreciative of this opportunity.”

Bigelow said he expects to sink in another $250 million before his company’s first orbital outpost — comprised of two inflatable BA-330 modules, each with roughly 330 cubic meters of space — is ready to fly in 2016.

By then, the company hopes that NASA’s efforts to nurture one or more commercial space taxi companies will have paid off, as Bigelow’s space real-estate development plans are dependent on having a way to fly people to orbit.

The company initially is courting sovereign nations and their research institutes, and has preliminary agreements with organizations in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Australia, Singapore, Japan, Sweden and the United Arab Emirate of Dubai.