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On May 26, NASA astronaut Jeff Williams spent seven hours inflating the first expandable room at the International Space Station. Called Bigelow Expandable Activity Module or BEAM, the balloon-like structure that measures 10-feet by 13-feet, (about the size of an average bedroom), when fully inflated, is the first prototype of what NASA experts hope will be the space habitat of the future. The compressed module arrived at the ISS aboard the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft on April 8 and was put in place outside the Tranquility module by ISS’s robotic arm, Canadarm2.
Though the ISS astronauts will not be residing in this new room, they will spend many hours there, collecting data to help them assess if it is habitable. The astronauts will also monitor the module’s ability to withstand the harsh external conditions, such as solar radiation, space debris, and extreme temperature fluctuations. At the end of the two-year mission, BEAM will be released from the space station and allowed to float back to Earth. NASA expects the inflatable habitat to burn up as it re-enters the atmosphere.
Building an inflatable and lightweight home like BEAM is essential for astronauts aspiring to live on far-off planets like Mars. That’s because sending supplies to enable human settlement is going to be an expensive proposition. Creating a light-weight habitat that can be compressed to a small size will help save both cargo space and fuel, and significantly cut down the mission cost.
But as you can imagine creating such habitat is not an easy task. Engineers have been trying to perfect the inflatable spacecraft for over 60 years. While the first few versions that were launched in the 1960’s worked well for the Project Echo communications satellites that they housed, they were unsuitable for humans. Around the same time Barron Hilton, of the Hilton hotels, partnered with the Goodyear Company to build large rubber donut-shaped space stations for NASA. Unfortunately, the rubber proved to be unsafe for humans, and the project was soon abandoned.
It wasn’t until the 1990’s that the idea was revisited by the introduction of the Space Exploration Initiative, a government initiative that commissioned NASA to pursue a mission to Mars. Using new high-tech materials like Kevlar and Nextel, NASA engineers embarked on creating the Trans Habitat —a modern version of the inflatable space habitat. Unfortunately, the timing coincided with the construction of the International Space Station, which was both behind schedule and over budget, causing Congress to withdraw its funding for the Trans Habitat in 2000.
Las Vegas-based Bigelow Aerospace took advantage of the opportunity and purchased the designs from NASA to try to develop the modules privately. In 2006 and 2007, the company successfully launched two inflatable spacecraft, Genesis I and Genesis II, to low Earth orbit. In 2013, NASA, who was still seeking a solution for a suitable space home, decided to partner with Bigelow Aerospace to develop BEAM and the rest, as they say, is history.
If the BEAM mission goes well, Bigelow Aerospace plans to build even larger modules, which they hope to use not just to house astronauts, but also space tourists! We for one, cannot wait for that day to arrive!
Resources: NASA.gov, wikipedia.org, wired.com, space.com