After several years of research and development and intense speculation, NASA has awarded a $17.8 million contract to Bigelow Aerospace to provide a new expandable module to the International Space Station. The torus-shaped Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) will demonstrate the benefits of this space habitat technology for future exploration and commercial endeavors. According to NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver, the new module “represents a step forward in cutting-edge technology that can allow humans to thrive in space safely and affordably.” She added that the new module would also “herald important progress in U.S. commercial space innovation.” A press conference to announce the plan is scheduled at Bigelow’s Las Vegas headquarters on Wednesday, 16 January.
Founded by Budget Suites of America hotel magnate and aerospace entrepreneur Robert Bigelow in 1998, Bigelow Aerospace has for more than a decade pioneered the construction of inflatable modules for scientific and commercial activity in the microgravity environment. By 2010, the startup company had received a total financial injection of $180 million from its founder, who has repeatedly stated his intent to increase this to around $500 million by 2015 in order to achieve the launch of full-scale hardware. The BEAM mission is classed as a “sub-scale demonstration” of Bigelow’s expandable module technology.
According to Jason Crusan, chief technologist for space operations within the Space Operations Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters, quoted by Space.com’s Leonard David in a January 2011 article, “We’re talking about a project that would take about 24 months from go-ahead to the module being on-orbit.” Crusan added that BEAM would be “pretty fast-paced” and would be carried into orbit under the auspices of NASA’s 2008 Commercial Resupply Services contract, pointing to either SpaceX or Orbital Sciences as the launch provider. Although exact details remain sketchy, the Space.com article suggested that BEAM would probably be robotically berthed at one of the interfaces of the International Space Station’s Tranquility node. As well as providing much-needed logistics and stowage support for the multi-national outpost, BEAM is expected to offer data on the performance of non-rigid space station modules with human occupants for the first time. It has also been noted that the new module could serve as a centrifuge demonstration model for NASA’s hypothetical Nautilux-X deep-space exploration vehicle.
Expandable space station modules are nothing new; in fact, they have been imagined for decades by science-fiction writers and space exploration strategists alike. In the 1990s, NASA pursued a concept known as “TransHab” to provide an inflatable habitation feature for the International Space Station. The module would have boasted four levels, supporting avionics, individual crew quarters, exercise equipment, and a kitchen/wardroom. In addition to the benefit of its deflated compactness during launch, TransHab could be expanded to 26.9 feet in diameter—as opposed to 14.4 feet across the width of the U.S. segment’s Destiny, Columbus, and Kibo modules—thereby providing a significantly roomier facility. Even the name TransHab spoke volumes about its grandiose ambitions, for it represented a contraction of “Transit Habitation,” originally envisaged to form part of a human expedition to Mars. Delays and spiralling costs of the ISS ultimately led to TransHab’s demise, and in 2000 House Resolution 1654 formally ended NASA’s hopes of conducting further research and development of the module.
In the wake of TransHab, Bigelow Aerospace licensed the multi-layer, expandable technology from the space agency and has since secured a trio of Space Act agreements, which place the aerospace company in pole position as the sole commercial provider of NASA’s expandable modules. TransHab’s original constituent materials of Nextel and woven Kevlar have been joined by extensions of Vectran fabric—described as a double-strength variant of Kevlar—and by 2010 Bigelow had invested $180 million into expandable module technologies. That same year, NASA formally revived its own interest in the concept, and on 22 February its budget proposal expressed interest in “connecting a Bigelow expandable craft to the ISS to verify their safety by testing life-support, radiation shielding, thermal control, and communications capabilities.”
By this time, Bigelow had matured from inaugural designs to actual flight hardware. On 12 July 2006, the company launched its Genesis I experimental habitat module into orbit, atop a Dnepr rocket from the Dombrarovsky missile base, near Yasny in Russia’s Orenburg Oblast. The module represented a one-third scale model of Bigelow’s anticipated BA-330 facility, and its single gas tank successfully inflated Genesis I to its full size of 14.4 feet long and 8.3 feet in diameter, and a total interior habitable volume of 406 cubic feet, within ten minutes. In spite of a major radiation event, caused by a solar storm, in December 2006 Genesis I endured and remained functional for more than two years. Within its pressurized confines, it carried photographs, toys, and cards from Bigelow employees, together with NASA’s GeneBox nanosatellite demo and a life sciences payload of Madagascan hissing cockroaches and Mexican jumping beans. The module is still in orbit and should not re-enter the atmosphere until the latter part of the present decade.
Almost exactly a year after the Genesis I launch, a near-identical companion, Genesis II, was blasted into space from the same site and atop a similar rocket on 28 June 2007. The mission should have taken place within weeks of Genesis I, but was repeatedly postponed due to technical and scheduling problems. Rather than having a single gas inflation tank, Genesis II benefited from several tanks to improve reliability and enable more finely-tuned controllability. It also ferried a life sciences payload into orbit, with another group of Madagascan hissing cockroaches, together with South African flat rock scorpions and seed-harvester ants. The module also carried photographs, later posted on Bigelow’s website, and an interactive “Space Bingo” game. Like its companion, Genesis II has proven hugely successful, taking over 4,000 photographs and maintaining its internal pressure between 10.1 and 10.5 psi, dependent upon variations as it moves in and out of direct sunlight. It, too, is expected to endure in space for around 12 years.
For all their success, both Genesis missions are but the prelude to Bigelow’s BA-330 monster of a spacecraft—so numerically named because it will boast an internal habitable volume of some 330 cubic meters—which is expected to make its first flight in 2014 or 2015. This cubic volume represents a 210-percent habitability increase over the International Space Station’s Destiny laboratory. The BA-330 is described as having the capability to support scientific and industrial microgravity research, as well as “space tourism,” and despite a total length of 45 feet and a diameter of 22 feet its textile and Vectran construction will push its weight no higher than around 50,000 pounds. Still, when fully inflated, the BA-330 is expected to yield walls as tough as concrete. Solar arrays and batteries will provide electrical power, with avionics to support navigation, orbital re-boost, docking and maneuvering, and an environmental control system to sustain up to six human occupants.
The design of this and other modules has inspired proposals such as the “Bigelow Commercial Space Station,” which has produced utilization agreements from the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Australia, Singapore, Japan, Sweden, and Dubai. Several concepts have factored into Bigelow’s business plans for “space hotels” to offer four-week orbital residencies for around $15-23 million. Still others, including the “Sundancer,” have met with cancellation. At present, fabrication work centers on the company’s 181,000-square-foot production facility in North Las Vegas—construction of which began in late 2010. As for vehicles to transport humans to these outposts, a number of options presently exist, with Boeing’s Atlas V-boosted CST-100 capsule believed to be the front-runner. Later plans even envisage BA-330-based lunar bases and a possible role in the much-studied Exploration Gateway at one of the Earth-Moon Libration Points.
Wednesday’s announcement of the agreement between Bigelow and NASA to launch the BEAM module is an enormous leap forward and reflects the space agency’s determination to incorporate inflatable-module technology into its future plans.