Space Station Gets Experimental New Room with Installation of BEAM Expandable Habitat

Robotic arm attaches BEAM inflatable habitat module to International Space Station on April 16, 2016. Credit: NASA/Tim Kopra
Robotic arm attaches BEAM inflatable habitat module to International Space Station on April 16, 2016. Credit: NASA/Tim Kopra

The International Space Station (ISS) grew in size today, April 16, following the successful installation of an experimental new room – the BEAM expandable habitat module.

Engineers at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston used the space station’s high tech robotic arm to pluck the small module known as the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) out from the unpressurized rear truck section of the recently arrived SpaceX Dragon cargo freighter, and added it onto the orbiting laboratory complex.

BEAM was manufactured by Las Vegas-based Bigelow Aerospace under a $17.8 million contract with NASA. It will remain joined to the station for at least a two-year test period.

The 3115 pound (1413 kg) BEAM will test the use of an expandable space habitat in microgravity with humans for the first time.

It was extracted from the Dragon’s trunk overnight with the robotic Canadarm2 and then installed on the aft port of the Tranquility module at 5:36 a.m. EDT over a period of about 4 hours. The station was flying over the Southern Pacific Ocean at the moment of berthing early Saturday.

NASA astronaut and ISS Expedition 47 crew member Tim Kopra snapped a super cool photo of BEAM in transit, shown above.

BEAM module after installation on the ISS Tranquility module on April 16, 2016.  Credit: NASA
BEAM module after installation on the ISS Tranquility module on April 16, 2016. Credit: NASA

BEAM was carried to orbit in a compressed form inside the Dragon’s truck following the April 8 blast off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 4:43 p.m. EDT on the Dragon CRS-8 resupply mission for NASA to the ISS.

BEAM is a prototype inflatable habitat that could revolutionize the method of construction of future habitable modules intended for use both in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) as well as for deep space expeditions Beyond Earth Orbit (BEO) to destinations including the Moon, Asteroids and Mars.

The advantage of expandable habitats is that they offer a much better volume to weight ratio compared to standard rigid metallic structures such as all of the current ISS pressurized modules.

It is constructed of lighter weight reinforced fabric rather that metal. This counts as the first test of an expandable module and investigators want to determine how it fares with respect to protection again solar radiation, space debris and the temperature extremes of space.

Furthermore they also take up much less space inside the payload fairing of a rocket during launch.

Watch this animation showing how Canadarm2 transports BEAM from the Dragon spacecraft to a side berthing port on Tranquility where it will soon be expanded.

Animation shows how the International Space Station robotic arm will transport BEAM from the Dragon spacecraft to a side berthing port on the Harmony module where it will then be expanded.  Credit: NASA
Animation shows how the International Space Station robotic arm will transport BEAM from the Dragon spacecraft to a side berthing port on the Tranquility module where it will then be expanded. Credit: NASA

Current plans call for the module to be expanded in late May with air. It will expand to nearly five times from its compressed size of 8 feet in diameter by 7 feet in length to roughly 10 feet in diameter and 13 feet in length. Once inflated it will provide 565 cubic feet (16 m3) of habitable volume.

Exactly how it will expand is also an experiment and could happen in multiple ways. Therefore the team will exercise great caution and carefully monitor the inflation and check for leaks.

The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM, is attached to the International Space Station early on April 16, 2016.  Credit: NASA
The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM, is attached to the International Space Station early on April 16, 2016. Credit: NASA

The astronauts will first enter BEAM about a week after the expansion. Thereafter they will visit it about 2 or 3 times per year for several hours to retrieve sensor data and assess conditions, say NASA officials.

Visits could perhaps occur even frequently more if NASA approves. says Bigelow CEO Robert Bigelow.

BEAM is an extraordinary test bed in itself.

This computer rendering depicts the Canadarm2 robotic arm removing BEAM from the back of the Space X Dragon spacecraft.  Credit: NASA
This computer rendering depicts the Canadarm2 robotic arm removing BEAM from the back of the Space X Dragon spacecraft. Credit: NASA

But Robert Bigelow hopes that BEAM can be used to conduct science experiments after maybe a six month shakedown cruise, if all goes well, and NASA approves a wider usage.

Bigelow Aerospace has already taken in the next step in expandable habitats.

Earlier this week, Bigelow and rocket builder United Launch Alliance (ULA) announced they are joining forces to develop and launch the B330 expandable commercial habitat module in 2020 on an Atlas V. It is about 20 times larger and far more capable. Details in my story here.

Robert Bigelow says he hopes that NASA will approve docking of the B330 at the ISS.

This artist’s concept depicts the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module attached to the International Space Station’s Tranquility module. Credits: Bigelow Aerospace
This artist’s concept depicts the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module attached to the International Space Station’s Tranquility module.
Credits: Bigelow Aerospace

The SpaceX Dragon spacecraft delivered almost 7,000 pounds of cargo.

CRS-8 counts as the company’s eighth flight to deliver supplies, science experiments and technology demonstrations to the ISS for the crews of Expeditions 47 and 48 to support dozens of the approximately 250 science and research investigations in progress.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

………….

Learn more about SpaceX, NASA Mars rovers, Orion, SLS, ISS, Orbital ATK, ULA, Boeing, Space Taxis, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

Apr 17: “NASA and the Road to Mars Human Spaceflight programs”- 1:30 PM at Washington Crossing State Park, Nature Center, Titusville, NJ – http://www.state.nj.us/dep/parksandforests/parks/washcros.html

Bigelow and ULA Partner to Launch Commercial Space Habitat in 2020

Interior schematic view of Bigelow Aerospace B330 expandable module. Credit: Bigelow Aerospace
 Interior schematic view of Bigelow Aerospace B330 expandable module. Credit: Bigelow Aerospace

Interior schematic view of Bigelow Aerospace B330 expandable module. Credit: Bigelow Aerospace

Bigelow Aerospace and United Launch Alliance (ULA) announced they are joining forces to develop and launch the world’s first commercial space habitat to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) by 2020 – potentially as a huge and revolutionary new addition to the International Space Station (ISS).

The expandable habitat will be based on the Bigelow Aerospace B330 module and would be carried to orbit on the most powerful version of ULA’s venerable Atlas V rocket.

Robert Bigelow, founder and president of Bigelow Aerospace, and Tory Bruno, ULA president and CEO announced the partnership on the fully commercial space habitat during a joint media briefing held at the 32nd Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colorado on April 11.

“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 Tory Bruno, ULA president and CEO.

The B330 boasts an interior volume of 330 cubic meters (12,000 cu ft). It measures 57 feet (17.3 m) in length, weighs 20 tons and offers a design life span of 20 years.

If NASA agrees to attach the B330 to the ISS, the stations habitable volume would grow by a whopping 30% in one giant step.

“The alliance represents the first-ever commercial partnership between a launch provider and a habitat provider,” according to ULA.

The advantage of expandable habitats is that they offer a much better volume to weight ratio compared to standard rigid structures, such as all of the current ISS pressurized modules.

The station based B330 concept is named XBASE or Expandable Bigelow Advanced Station Enhancement.

Schematic of the Bigelow Aerospace B330 expandable module tucked inside the fairing of a ULA ?AtlasV? 552 rocket.  Credit: ULA
Schematic of the Bigelow Aerospace B330 expandable module tucked inside the fairing of a ULA Atlas V 552 rocket. Credit: ULA

The additional volume would enable a significant increase in the orbiting outposts ability to support research and development operations and manufacturing processes for NASA and commercial users.

Bigelow further views the B330 and follow on modules as a potential destination for space tourism and a beneficial component for human missions to the Moon and Mars.

“We are exploring options for the location of the initial B330 including discussions with NASA on the possibility of attaching it to the International Space Station (ISS),” said Robert Bigelow, founder and president of Bigelow Aerospace.

“In that configuration, the B330 will enlarge the station’s volume by 30% and function as a multipurpose testbed in support of NASA’s exploration goals as well as provide significant commercial opportunities. The working name for this module is XBASE or Expandable Bigelow Advanced Station Enhancement.”

Bigelow said his firm plans to build two B330 modules by 2020.

The B330 would be tucked inside the cavernous payload fairing of the Atlas V which would launch in the 552 configuration with 5 meter diameter fairing with 5 solid rocket booster attached to the first stage and a dual engine Centaur second stage.

Launch of Bigelow B330 expandable habitat module tucked inside ULA Atlas V payload fairing. Credit: ULA
Launch of Bigelow B330 expandable habitat module tucked inside ULA Atlas V payload fairing. Credit: ULA

“When looking for a vehicle to launch our large, unique spacecraft, ULA provides a heritage of solid mission success, schedule certainty and a cost effective solution,” says Bigelow.

The SpaceX falcon 9 fairing is not big enough to house the B330.

“SpaceX, they do not have the capability with the fairing size that is necessary to accommodate the B330. So that is not even a choice,” Bigelow stated.

The B330 partnership announcement follows hot on the heels of last weeks successful launch of Bigelow’s experimental BEAM expandable module on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on a mission to the ISS on April 8.

The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) is an experimental expandable capsule that attaches to the space station.  Credits: Bigelow Aerospace, LLC
The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) is an experimental expandable capsule that attaches to the space station. Credits: Bigelow Aerospace, LLC

BEAM is tucked inside the rear truck section of the SpaceX Dragon now berthed at the station. It will soon be attached to a side port on the Harmony module.

“This innovative and game-changing advance will dramatically increase opportunities for space research in fields like materials, medicine and biology,” said Bruno.

“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.”

The B330 could also function as a free flyer but would work best at the station, Bigelow noted at the briefing.

Both of the commercial space taxis being developed under NASA’s commercial crew program (CCP) could dock at the B330; the Boeing Starliner and the SpaceX crew Dragon, Bigelow stated.

Multiple B330 modules could also be joined together in orbit to form a free flying commercial space station.

United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket – powered by Russian made RD-180 engines – and Super Secret NROL-67 intelligence gathering payload poised for launch at Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, in March 2014.  Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
File photo of Atlas V rocket in with 5 meter diameter payload fairing and 5 solid rocket boosters following rollout to Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

………….

Learn more about SpaceX, ULA, commercial space, NASA Mars rovers, Orion, SLS, ISS, Orbital ATK, Boeing, Space Taxis, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

Apr 17: “NASA and the Road to Mars Human Spaceflight programs”- 1:30 PM at Washington Crossing State Park, Nature Center, Titusville, NJ – http://www.state.nj.us/dep/parksandforests/parks/washcros.html