In early 2013, NASA awarded Bigelow Aerospace with a $17.8 million contract to develop an expandable space habitat. Now, the agency and the Nevada-based aerospace company are looking to launch the module to the International Space Station (ISS) sometime this year. The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) will be berthed to the Tranquility Node of the space station for a minimum two-year technology demonstration. NASA recently visited the facility in Las Vegas for an event celebrating the completion of BEAM’s major milestones before the module is shipped off to the Kennedy Space Center for launch.
BEAM will fit inside the cargo version of the SpaceX Dragon capsule atop the company’s SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and launch with the eighth commercial resupply mission to the ISS, also known as SpX-8, slated for sometime in late-2015. When packed inside the cargo capsule, BEAM will measure around 8 feet in diameter. Once the module is attached to the ISS it will undergo a series of tests to ensure the supporting hardware is safe for use. The crew aboard the space station will activate a pressurization system that will allow the structure to expand to its full size (about the size of a large camping tent) using air stored within the module. When BEAM is fully deployed, it will add an additional 565 cubic feet of volume to the ISS and allow for easy access by astronauts aboard the station. The space station habitants will enter the expandable activity module periodically to gather data and perform routine inspections. Monitoring the performance of the module will help with the development of future habitat designs and systems. Key concerns include how an expandable habitat will perform in the thermal environment of space and how it will respond to radiation, micrometeoroids, and orbital debris. After the two-year test period is completed, BEAM will be jettisoned from the space station to a fiery fate, as it will burn up on re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere.
When the contract was announced on Jan. 16, 2013, William Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, spoke at NASA Headquarters in Washington:
“The International Space Station is a uniquely suited test bed to demonstrate innovative exploration technologies like the BEAM. As we venture deeper into space on the path to Mars, habitats that allow for long-duration stays in space will be critical capability. Using the station’s resources, we’ll learn how humans can work effectively with this technology in space, as we continue to advance our understanding in all aspects for long-duration spaceflight aboard the orbiting laboratory.”
Influenced by the use of lightweight and compact materials, BEAM strays away from the traditional rigid and metallic structures used for space habitats. It is a game-changer for the industry and the first private space habitat in history. It is approximately 13 feet in length and weights about 3,000 lbs. (1,360 kg).
NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden believes BEAM is another example of how we are “out-innovating” other nations while “knocking down the barriers as we push out into the solar system, not just to visit, but to stay.”
In Bolden’s blog about BEAM, he writes: “The ‘Bigelow Expandable Activity Module,’ or the BEAM, is an expandable habitat that will be used to investigate technology and understand the potential benefits of such habitants for human missions to deep space. The ISS is an excellent platform to test and demonstrate explorations systems such as the BEAM. [A]nd NASA expects that the BEAM project will gather critical data related to structural, thermal, and acoustic performance, as well as radiation and micrometeoroid protection. All of these data are essential to understanding the technology for future astronaut habitats for use in long-duration space travel.”
Expandable space habitat technology could be a breakthrough in the way we live and work in space. This new kind of habitat significantly increases the amount of space available to astronauts and provides protection against radiation and physical debris. The new advances in productivity provided by expendable habitats may give humans a wider range of options for extending human spaceflight beyond LEO and farther into the Solar System than ever before. It can be used for transportation or on the surface of another planet, such as Mars, while still supporting the advancement of modern platforms for commercial use in LEO.
NASA has ambitious plans to take “human spaceflight from low-Earth orbit (LEO) operations to ‘proving ground’ operations in ‘cis-lunar’ space orbiting the moon.” NASA and the agency’s partners will test important hardware, including space habitats for deep space missions, and the capabilities necessary to send astronauts on long-duration deep space missions to Mars or other locations within our Solar System in which they must operate independently from our home planet.
The ISS is a sophisticated laboratory that allows special experiments and research to be conducted that may not be possible on Earth due to gravity. The ISS is the key platform for technology development and testing in space to allow humans and robots to explore Mars, an asteroid, or other mysterious destinations beyond LEO.
“We’re fortunate to have the space station to demonstrate potential habitation capabilities like BEAM,” explained Jason Crusan, director of Advanced Exploration Systems at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “Station provides us with a long-duration microgravity platform with constant crew access to evaluate systems and technologies we are considering for future missions farther into deep space.”
In a previous AmericaSpace article, it was stated that BEAM is part of NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems (AES) Program, which works to develop innovative technologies to help expand human presence beyond LEO, rapidly and affordably. The AES program involves approximately 20 small projects that focus on top-priority capabilities needed for human space exploration. Some of these priorities are advanced life support, crew mobility, extra-vehicular activity systems (EVA), and deep space habitation. The prototype’s developed under this program will be demonstrated in field tests, underwater tests, ground-based test beds, and flight experiments on the ISS.
NASA is committed to partnering with industry in order to support the advancement of commercial use of space, and BEAM is a prime example. Bigelow Aerospace is advancing on technology NASA envisioned in the 1990s and licensed to the Nevada-based startup company. The agency and Bigelow are mutually benefitting from the sharing of expertise, costs, and risks to pursue these ambitious goals.
An animation of the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module’s extraction and installation on the International Space Station.
Video credit: NASA