Little more than a week since its rousing launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., aboard SpaceX’s Dragon cargo ship—and just six days since it reached its orbital home for the next two years—the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) is slated to be physically installed onto the Tranquility node at the International Space Station (ISS) on Saturday morning. The 3,000-pound (1,360-kg) BEAM was developed by Las Vegas, Nev.-based Bigelow Aerospace, under contract to NASA, and represents the first human-rated expandable structure ever used in space. Its installation over the weekend will set the stage for several weeks of leak checks and other work, ahead of BEAM’s expansion to its full, torus-shaped configuration in late May. Also this week, Bigelow and United Launch Alliance (ULA) announced their partnership over B330 expandable habitat technology for proposed science and industrial missions, together with space tourism and perhaps eventually human voyages to the Moon and Mars.
As outlined in AmericaSpace’s preview of the BEAM mission, the $17.8 million Bigelow-NASA contract was publicly announced in January 2013, with initial plans that the expandable module would be launched to the ISS two years later. However, the loss of SpaceX’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS)-7 Dragon, last 28 June, placed all subsequent missions—including BEAM—on hold, and its original September 2015 launch date was repeatedly delayed until the January-February 2016 timeframe, before slipping further to 8 April. Two days after Friday’s successful liftoff from Space Launch Complex (SLC)-40 at the Cape, the CRS-8 Dragon, with BEAM safely tucked into its unpressurized “trunk,” was captured by the 57.7-foot-long (17.6-meter) Canadarm2 robotic arm last Sunday morning and berthed at the station.
Tomorrow’s four-hour effort to robotically detach BEAM from Dragon’s trunk and install it onto the aft-facing Common Berthing Mechanism (CBM) of the Tranquility node is scheduled to get underway at 2:15 a.m. EDT. Overseeing the operation from the Mission Control Center (MCC) at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas, will be Flight Director Amit Kshatriya, assisted by Capcom Rebecca Wingfield. However, the actual commanding of Canadarm2 will be performed by Laura Lucier of the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), seated at the Robotics Officer (ROBO) console. All three have extensive robotics experience. Prior to his selection as a flight director in April 2014, Mr. Kshatriya served as a robotics system instructor and was Lead Robotics Officer for SpaceX’s Dragon demo mission in December 2010. He subsequently led the planning for the first robotic capture of a commercial vehicle: SpaceX’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) Demo in May 2012. Ms. Lucier was the Lead Robotics Mission Planner for shuttle Endeavour’s STS-118 mission in August 2007, whilst Ms. Wingfield has served as an ISS Flight Controller and, since September 2013, as an ISS Capcom.
Following the arrival of BEAM at the station, the unloading of the Dragon cargo ship is proceeding according to schedule and no checkouts of the expandable module will be necessary before or after its installation onto Tranquility, until its actual outfitting at the aft CBM interface gets underway in late May. As detailed in a recently-released NASA animation, Canadarm2 will be based off the Power and Data Grapple Fixture (PDGF) on the U.S. Destiny laboratory for the BEAM extraction and installation task. After removal from Dragon’s trunk, it will be translated under the nadir side of the station’s U.S. Orbital Segment (USOS) and berthed at Tranquility aft.
Aboard the station itself, Expedition 47 Commander Tim Kopra and his five crewmates— Russian cosmonauts Yuri Malenchenko, Alexei Ovchinin, and Oleg Skripochka, together with NASA astronaut Jeff Williams and Britain’s Tim Peake—are not expected to participate in the robotics operation itself. However, they will take an active role toward the end of the operation, assisting with CBM operations. Assuming an on-time start of the robotics, BEAM should be in position at the aft-facing Tranquility CBM by 6:15 a.m. EDT. Kopra, Peake, and Williams will then oversee the final latching of BEAM in much the same fashion as during a Dragon or Cygnus berthing.
Until the tail end of May, the module will remain in its stowed configuration, measuring about 5.7 feet (1.7 meters) long and 7.7 feet (2.4 meters) in diameter. “It takes a few weeks for the crew to outfit the vestibule between [Tranquility] aft port and the station,” NASA’s Rob Navias told AmericaSpace recently. “There will be leak checks and other systems checks in the interim.” The physical expansion of BEAM to its fully deployed, torus-like configuration—measuring 13 feet (4 meters) long and 10.5 feet (3.2 meters) in diameter—is targeted over two ISS “daytime” orbital passes, and Mr. Navias noted that the current planning date is 27 May. The expansion of the new module will be orchestrated by the Operations Support Officer (OSO) in Mission Control. This console position is responsible for logistical support functions pertaining to on-orbit maintenance, as well as mechanical systems, including the installation and activation of new modules and truss components.
After the expansion of BEAM, the Expedition 47 crew will conduct leak checks and outfit the Tranquility aft CBM vestibule at the berthing interface, prior to hatch opening. According to NASA, astronauts will enter BEAM about a week after expansion, which will place this activity near the end of Expedition 47. Pressure and temperature sensors will be installed inside BEAM during this initial ingress. Kopra, Malenchenko, and Peake are currently scheduled to return to Earth—wrapping up their six-month ISS increment—on 5 June, passing the torch over to Williams, Ovchinin, and Skripochka, who will form the core of Expedition 48. Therefore, depending upon any unforeseen slippage to this timescale, the actual opening of BEAM’s hatch may occur at the very end of Expedition 47 or at the beginning of Expedition 48.
Present plans call for BEAM to be ingressed by astronauts “for a few hours several times a year” for the purpose of assessing conditions and the retrieval of sensor data. According to Mr. Navias, no specific dates have been determined for when the module will be accessed during its period on-orbit, although specific data will be gathered on temperature and radiation conditions, as well as Micrometeoroid Orbital Debris (MMOD) impact events over time. BEAM will remain in place at Tranquility aft for up to two years, evaluating the thermal, structural, and radiation performance of an expandable vehicle, as well as its mechanical durability and its long-term leak performance. In precis, Bigelow expects BEAM to increase its Technology Readiness Level (TRL) of expandable habitat technology, providing the vanguard for larger and more diverse missions.
And expandable habitats are at the heart of Bigelow Aerospace’s future aspirations in low-Earth orbit and beyond. Founded by Budget Suites of America entrepreneur Robert Bigelow in 1998, the aerospace firm has pioneered the construction in expandable modules and had received a total financial injection of $180 million by 2010. As described previously by AmericaSpace, Bigelow licensed the multi-layered technology from NASA—following the 2000 cancelation of the space agency’s TransHab concept—and secured a trio of Space Act agreements. By 2010, NASA revived its interest in connecting an expandable craft to the ISS and in early 2013 BEAM, as a “sub-scale demonstration” of Bigelow technology, was formally announced.
In parallel, Bigelow Aerospace operated two highly successful expandable spacecraft, Genesis I and Genesis II, launched in July 2006 and June 2007, respectively. Both represented an approximately one-third-scale model of the company’s planned B330 (or “BA-330”) facility. The B330—whose numerical designator offers a nod to its 11,654-cubic-foot (330-cubic-meter) internal volume—will greatly surpass BEAM in dimensions. Moreover, according to Bigelow, it will dwarf the 3,740-cubic-foot (106-cubic-meter) habitable envelope of the U.S. Destiny lab. Measuring 45 feet (13.7 meters) long and 22 feet (6.7 meters) in diameter, the B330 will weigh around 43,000 pounds (20,000 kg) and will accommodate a crew of six.
Earlier this week, Bigelow and ULA announced a partnership in the development and deployment of habitable volumes in low-Earth orbit. The first launch of a B330 will occur in 2020, atop ULA’s venerable Atlas V, which will fly in its “552” configuration, equipped with a 17.7-foot-diameter (5.4-meter) payload fairing, five strap-on solid-fueled boosters, and a Dual-Engine Centaur (DEC) upper stage. Although the DEC is as-yet unflown, it is expected to make its debut on the unpiloted maiden launch of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner vehicle in mid-to-late 2017. Flying with the additional muscle of five solids, the Atlas V 552 has the ability to deliver up to 45,240 pounds (20,520 kg) of payload to low-Earth orbit and is thus ideally suited for B330 launch operations.
“The craft will support zero-gravity research, including scientific missions and manufacturing processes,” ULA noted of the B330 plans. “Beyond its industrial and scientific purposes, however, it has potential as a destination for space tourism and a craft for missions destined for the Moon and Mars.” According to Mr. Bigelow, discussions are underway with NASA about possibly locating the first B330 at the ISS, where it could potentially “enlarge the station’s volume by 30 percent.” In tandem, he explained, an ISS presence “could function as a multi-purpose testbed in support of NASA’s exploration goals, as well as provide significant commercial opportunities.” The working name for the concept is “Expandable Bigelow Advanced Station Enhancement” (XBASE).
“We could not be more pleased than to partner with Bigelow Aerospace and reserve a launch slot on our manifest for this revolutionary mission,” said ULA President and CEO Tory Bruno. “This innovative and game-changing advance will dramatically increase opportunities for space research in fields like materials, medicine and biology. And it enables destinations in space for countries, corporations and even individuals far beyond what is available today, effectively democratizing space. We can’t begin to imagine the future potential of affordable real estate in space.”
It is noted that transportation to B330 destinations, whether ISS-based or free-flying, would be undertaken by NASA’s Commercial Crew providers, SpaceX and Boeing. “The traffic to just one module,” ULA pointed out, “will more than double the number of crew flights per year.” Looking ahead, and with B330 habitat technology tried and tested, it has been suggested that it could be deployed to the surfaces of the Moon and Mars. Other “Deep Space” (DS) variants are envisaged for cislunar or Earth-Moon Lagrange Point destinations, as well as rocky bodies in the inner Solar System.