Space entrepreneur, Robert Bigelow, explains his expansive plans for space. Credit: Space Foundation

Space entrepreneur, Robert Bigelow, explains his expansive plans for space.
Credit: Space Foundation

 

“Bend me, shape me, anyway you want me
Long as you love me, it’s all right
Bend me, shape me, anyway you want me
You got the power to turn on the light”

— American Breed

Success today as the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) reached “manual inflation complete” from its docking point on the International Space Station.

As BEAM expanded, NASA astronaut Jeff Williams reported a succession of “pops” as the structure began to take shape – sounds of success. Good motion was reported in both length and diameter attained by BEAM.

BEAM on the rise. Credit: NASA TV

BEAM on the rise.
Credit: NASA TV

Initial efforts to inflate BEAM were called off last week after several hours of attempts to pump air into the module.

Vital pathfinder

BEAM is billed as a vital pathfinder for validating the benefits of expandable habitats. They can be used in low Earth orbit, cislunar space, as well as for Moon and Mars surface missions.

Builder of the BEAM is the commercial space firm, Bigelow Aerospace of North Las Vegas.

The ISS-attached BEAM is headed for a two-year demonstration period.

Bigelow Aerospace facilities in North Las Vegas showcases future plans for larger inflatable structures. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Bigelow Aerospace facilities in North Las Vegas showcases future plans for larger inflatable structures.
Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Once fully inflated and checked out on the ISS, the BEAM is to be monitored for pressure, temperature, radiation protection, and micro-meteoroid/debris impact detection. Astronauts will periodically enter the BEAM to record data, and perform inspections of the module.

Despite initial problems in fully-inflating BEAM, Bigelow Aerospace remained confident that the structure add-on would achieve success.

Abundance of caution

In a May 27th statement from Bigelow Aerospace regarding the earlier inflation woes:

“Out of an abundance of caution for the ISS and the crew, operations were halted after the BEAM’s performance no longer matched the forecasted models on the ground. We recognize that the BEAM is a first-of-its-kind spacecraft, and we are in full support of safety being the number-one priority,” noted the statement.

“The BEAM spacecraft has been in a packed state for a significantly longer time than expected. It has undergone a tremendous squeeze for over 15 months, which is 10 months longer than planned. Therefore, there is a potential for the behavior of the materials that make up the outside of the spacecraft to act differently than expected.”

Pathfinder spacecraft

Back in 2006 and again in 2007, Bigelow Aerospace successfully launched and deployed two expandable, pathfinder spacecraft dubbed Genesis I and Genesis II.

Bigelow's pathfinder Genesis II took this selfie as it orbited the Earth. Credit: Bigelow Aerospace/Leonard David photo archives

Bigelow’s pathfinder Genesis II took this selfie as it orbited the Earth.
Credit: Bigelow Aerospace/Leonard David photo archives

“However, because of the BEAM’s location on the International Space Station, the deployment sequence has been dramatically modified to a much slower approach,” the newly issued statement explains.

“We fully expect that full deployment of the spacecraft will occur,” added the company statement, “there is no question whether the BEAM is capable of deployment.”

Look to the future

BEAM is a precursor to the Bigelow Aerospace B330, a much larger expandable space habitat privately manufactured by Bigelow Aerospace. The design was evolved from NASA’s TransHab habitat concept.

Bigelow plans have outlined use of expandable modules on the Moon. Credit: Bigelow Aerospace

Bigelow plans have outlined use of expandable modules on the Moon.
Credit: Bigelow Aerospace

As the name indicates, the B330 will provide 330 cubic meters (12,000 cubic feet) of internal volume and each habitat can support a crew of up to six. This craft can support zero-gravity research including scientific missions and manufacturing processes.

Beyond its industrial and scientific purposes, expandable structures have potential to support space tourism and missions destined for the Moon and Mars.

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