When you're millions of miles from Earth, things need to work—the first time. So rather than rely on failure-prone mechanical systems, these space instruments utilize miniature atmospheres for their protection. Our friends at Oobject have collected the dozen best examples of space inflatables.
Aluminum geodesic mesh in inflatable disolving plastic sphere satellite
The Mylar Echo satellites didn't stay up long, becuase the suns heat would deform them and slow them down. The answer was this system where a helium inflated plastic sphere would expand a signal reflecting hollow mesh, with the plastic dissolving under the suns rays. The mesh could then stay up for 11 years or so.
135 ft diameter Inflatable Echo 2 communications satellite
NASA developed mylar for the Echo program. These were inflatable passive communication satellites, i.e. signals were bounced off them to reach places on the other side of the earth.
Mockups of future Bigelow Aerospace inflatable habitats
After the successful launch of the Genesis 1, Bigelow hope to be pioneers of large scale inflatable habitats, in space.
2006 Geneseis 1, Bigelow Aerospace inflatable habitat demonstration
After NASAs inflatable habitat funding was cancelled, a private firm, Bigelow Aerospace, launched the first inflatable habitat prototype, aboard a converted missile in 2006. Genesis 1 is 14ft by 8ft.
1990s Transhab inflatable replacement for current space station habitation module
Shown here, Transhab prototype at Johnson Space Center
The IRVE hypersonic Inflatable Reentry Vehicle Experiment
IRVE-3 shown here.
1960s inflatable Re-Entry Glider
This was designed to be an escape pod attached to the side of a space station, which would inflate to create a glider, on re-entry.
Protective air bags for the Mars Pathfinder Rover landing
NASA Planetary Surface Habitat and Airlock Unit (Inflatable Moonbase)
Solar Concentrator for lunar regolith (moon dust) processing
1961 Nasa prototype of an inflatable solar collecting space station
Von Braun Inflatable Nylon Space Station Concept
Von Braun's involvement in the US space race was highly controversial, having been the developer of the Nazi rocket program.