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"The answer to the problem of information overload on the Net is reputations… engineer a system called a reputation server."
- Neal Stephenson

Space Bubble (Bubb)  
  An inflatable spacecraft.  

Getting a pound of material into Earth orbit is expensive. Do space ships have to be made of heavy, rigid metal?

The crinkly mass was one of the Bunch's major projects—their first space bubble, or bubb which they had been cutting and shaping with more care and devotion than skill...

Nelsen didn't listen anymore. His and Paul's attention had wandered to the largest color photo thumbtacked to the wall, above the TV set, and the shelf of dog-eared technical books. It showed a fragile, pearly ring, almost diaphanous, hanging tilted against spatial blackness and pinpoint stars. Its hub was a cylindrical spindle, with radial guys of fine, stainless steel wire. It was like the earliest ideas about a space station, yet it was also different. To many—Frank Nelsen and Paul Hendricks certainly included—such devices had as much beauty as a yacht under full sail had ever had for anybody.

Old Paul smirked with pleasure. "It's a shame, ain't it, Frank—calling a pretty thing like that a 'bubb'—it's an ugly p. 17 word. Or even a 'space bubble.' Technical talk gets kind of cheap."

"I don't mind," Frank Nelsen answered. "Our first one, here, could look just as nice—inflated, and riding free against the stars."

He touched the crinkly material, draped across its wooden support.

"It will," the old man promised. "Funny—not so long ago people thought that space ships would have to be really rigid—all metal. So how did they turn out? Made of stellene, mostly—an improved form of polyethylene—almost the same stuff as a weather balloon."

"A few millimeters thick, light, perfectly flexible when deflated," Nelsen added. "Cut out and cement your bubb together in any shape you choose. Fold it up firmly, like a parachute—it makes a small package that can be carried up into orbit in a blastoff rocket with the best efficiency. There, attached flasks of breathable atmosphere fill it out in a minute. Eight pounds pressure makes it fairly solid in a vacuum. So, behold—you've got breathing and living room, inside. There's nylon cording for increased strength—as in an automobile tire—though not nearly as much. There's a silicone gum between the thin double layers, to seal possible meteor punctures. A darkening lead-salt impregnation in the otherwise transparent stellene cuts radiation entry below the danger level, and filters the glare and the hard ultra-violet out of the sunshine. So there you are, all set up."

"Rig your hub and guy wires," old Paul carried on, cheerfully. "Attach your sun-powered ionic drive, set up your air-restorer, spin your vehicle for centrifuge-gravity, and you're ready to move—out of orbit."

They laughed, because getting into space wasn't as easy as they made it sound. The bubbs, one of the basic inventions that made interplanetary travel possible, were, for all their almost vagabondish simplicity, still a concession in lightness and compactness for atmospheric transit, to that first and greatest problem—breaking the terrific initial grip of Earth's gravity from the ground upward, and gaining stable orbital speed. Only a tremendously costly rocket, with a thrust greater than its own weight when fully loaded, could do that. Buying a blastoff passage had to be expensive.

From The Planet Strappers, by Raymond Z. Gallun.
Published by Pyramid Books in 1961
Additional resources -

Read this description of putting together a space bubble craft in orbit:

Just then the order came, maddeningly calm and hard above the other sounds in Frank's phone: "All novices disembarked from GOs-11 and -12 must clear four-hundred mile take-off orbital zone for other traffic within two hours."

At once Frank was furiously busy, working the darkened stellene of his bubb from the drum, letting it spread like a long wisp of silvery cobweb against the stars, letting it inflate from the air-flasks to a firm and beautiful circle, attaching the rigging, the fine, radial spokewires—for which the blastoff drum itself now formed the hub. To the latter he now attached his full-size, sun-powered ionic motor. Then he crept through the double sealing flaps of the airlock, to install the air-restorer and the moisture-reclaimer in the circular, tunnel-like interior that would now be his habitation.

He wasn't racing anything except time, but he had worked as fast as he could. Still, Gimp Hines had finished rigging his bubb, minutes ahead of Frank, or anybody else. On second thought, maybe this was natural enough. Here, where there was no weight, his useless leg made no difference—as the space-fitness examiners must have known. Besides, Gimp had talented fingers and a keen mechanical sense, and had always tried harder than anybody.

Ramos was almost as quick. Frank wasn't much farther behind. The Kuzaks were likewise doing all right. Two-and-Two was trailing some, but not very badly.

"Spin 'em!" Gimp shouted. "Don't forget to spin 'em for centrifuge-gravity and stability!"

And so they did, each gripping the rigging at their bubb rims, and using the minute but accumulative thrust of the shoulder ionics of their Archers, to provide the push. The inflated rings turned like wheels with perfect bearings. In the all but frictionless void, they could go on turning for decades, without additional impetus.

"We've made it—we're Out Here—we're all right!" Ramos was shouting with a fierce exultation.

Compare to the Inflatable Expansion Bubble from Crashlander (1994), by Larry Niven; this article contains more information about Werner von Braun's inflatable space station idea from 1952. Also, see the airtight tent from Gallun's 1951 story Asteroid of Fear and the Survival Bubble (Beach Ball) from Footfall (1985) by Larry Niven (w/J. Pournelle).

You might also enjoy reading about the asteroid rocket from Salvage in Space (1933) by Jack Williamson which is used to make a sort of minimalist space ship.

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Additional resources:
  More Ideas and Technology from The Planet Strappers
  More Ideas and Technology by Raymond Z. Gallun
  Tech news articles related to The Planet Strappers
  Tech news articles related to works by Raymond Z. Gallun

Space Bubble (Bubb)-related news articles:
  - Space Station Room Inflated! (Time-Lapse Video)

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