Space & Innovation

Space Station Ready for Inflatable Habitat Test

Twenty-five years after NASA began designing an inflatable space house for astronauts, a prototype habitat is launching next week for a trial run aboard the International Space Station.

Twenty-five years after NASA began designing an inflatable space house for astronauts, a prototype habitat is launching next week for a trial run aboard the International Space Station.

Astronauts won't be spending much time inside the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM, which inflates to size of a small bedroom. It's flying as a technology demonstration to verify that the materials, assembly processes and safety features work as advertised.

PHOTOS: International Space Station: 15 Years Living Off Earth

Compared to traditional metal habitats, such as the 13 pressurized modules that comprise the space station, inflatable habitats are lightweight and compact to launch, saving millions. BEAM, for example, which weighs about 3,100 pounds, increases its internal volume to about 560 cubic feet -- 10 times more than its configuration at launch.

The inflatable also may offer better radiation protection than metal habitats, which can generate body-piercing secondary particles during solar storms and cosmic ray impacts.

NASA began studying inflatable habitats in the 1990s under a program called TransHab as a way to house astronauts flying to and from Mars. Tests, including firing bullet-like projectiles at a model habitat, showed it could withstand micrometeoroid and space debris impacts as well as traditional aluminum spaceships.

Though the materials proved space-worthy, budget and political issues prompted NASA to cancel TransHab in 2000.

NEWS: Space Station to Test Bigelow Inflatable Module

Enter Robert Bigelow, a Nevada-based real estate developer, hotel chain owner and space entrepreneur, who licensed the TransHab technology from NASA and spent millions more developing and testing the design. Bigelow's space company, Bigelow Aerospace, manufactured and launched a pair of prototypes, Genesis 1 and 2, in 2006 and 2007, respectively.

BEAM will be the first of Bigelow's space habitats that people will enter.

"It's a pathfinder for building manned space habitats," Lisa Kauke, BEAM deputy program manager at Bigelow Aerospace, told reporters during a prelaunch conference call this week.

NASA is paying Bigelow Aerospace $17.8 million for the module, which is among some 6,900 pounds of cargo packed aboard a SpaceX Dragon capsule due to launch next week.

Once Dragon reaches the station, BEAM will be removed from the capsule's unpressurized trunk compartment by the station's robot arm and installed onto the Tranquility connecting node. Astronauts later will activate a pressurization system that inflates the module to its full, 12-foot long, 10-foot diameter size.

PHOTOS: Meet the Space Station's Resupply Fleet

Most of the time, BEAM's hatch will stay closed, while sensors measure radiation, temperature and pressure. The module also will be outfitted with instruments to detect orbital debris and micrometeoroid impacts. Station crewmembers will periodically gather data collected from inside the module and conduct inspections.

BEAM is expected to remain attached to the station for two years, then jettisoned so its berthing port can be used for other spacecraft, said NASA's BEAM project manager Rajib Dasgupta, at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

From a structural standpoint, however, the module is designed to last five years, he added.

Bigelow Aerospace plans to follow the BEAM demonstration with launch of a free-flying. company-owned and operated outpost called the B330. Bigelow is leasing space aboard the habitat to research organizations, businesses and perhaps space tourists.

NASA is interested in the technology to house astronauts during future deep-space expeditions that last longer than its Orion capsule's 21-day capability.

"Success in the BEAM demonstration will certainly go a long way in proving the benefits and feasibility of expandable habitats for deep space missions," Dasgupta said.

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying BEAM and other station cargo is scheduled to blast off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 4:43 p.m. EDT on April 8.

This artist's impression shows the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module attached to the space station's exterior. This inflatable module will test the viability of the system for future in-space applications.

15 years ago this week, the International Space Station accommodated its first crew members. Now, 180 months later, the orbiting outpost has not been uncrewed since, playing host to over 220 astronauts, cosmonauts and fee-paying space tourists.

Here are just a few of the highs and lows of humanity's most ambitious international endeavor in space.

PHOTOS: 'Space Invader' Found on International Space Station

The space station awaiting NASA astronaut William Shepherd, center, and cosmonauts Yuri Gidzenko, left, and Sergei Krikalev, right, 15 years ago wasn’t the first outpost to orbit Earth, nor the first to host residents from the United States and its former Cold War foe, Russia. But unlike NASA’s 1970s-era Skylab and the series of Soviet stations that ended in 2001 with Mir, the International Space Station, or ISS, was a joint program from the get-go.

PHOTOS: Meet the Space Station's Resupply Fleet

Assembly began on Nov. 20, 1998 with Russia launching the Zarya control module, pictured here in the center with the shorter solar panel wings. Three space shuttle missions followed to install the Unity connecting node (located at the bottom in this image), deliver supplies and prepare the station for the arrival of the Russian-launched Zvezda service module, at top, with a Russian Progress cargo ship attached. Two more space shuttle missions followed with more equipment and supplies before the first station crew blasted off aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket on Oct. 31, 2000. The crew arrived at the station two days later to begin a 4.5 month-long mission.

PHOTO: Enormous Red Sprites Seen From Space

The first station crew, known as Expedition One, hosted two visiting crews of space shuttle astronauts and added the U.S. Destiny laboratory module to the growing outpost before their replacements arrived aboard another space shuttle mission on March 10, 2001. That handover marked the first in an unbroken string of crew rotations that have kept the station permanently staffed for 15 years. The current station crew, led by NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, is Expedition 45.

PHOTOS: Space Station Astronauts Log One Million Photos

During their 167-day flight, the Expedition Two crew, comprised of Russian cosmonaut Yury Usachev and NASA astronauts Susan Helms and James Voss, became de facto space ambassadors when Russia insisted on flying a privately paying tourist. NASA vehemently objected to Dennis Tito, an American businessman, flying with the Russian taxi crew delivering a fresh Soyuz capsule to the station. NASA said it was too early in the station’s ongoing development for non-professional astronauts, but in the end, Russia, which was charging Tito some $20 million for the trip, prevailed. Tito, left in above image, spent six days aboard the station. Since then, six other passengers have paid upwards of $40 million to visit the station. One tourist, Microsoft co-founder Charles Simonyi, flew twice.

PHOTOS: Urban Planning: Cities Seen From Space

Station assembly continued at a steady pace until Feb. 1, 2003, when shuttle Columbia, on a rare, non-space station research flight, broke apart during its return to Earth, killing seven astronauts. Shuttle flights were immediately suspended, shifting sole responsibility for keeping the station staffed to Russia. The shuttle returned to flight in July 2005, but was grounded again for another year for more modifications. The STS-107 Columbia crew, left to right from top, David Brown, pilot William McCool, payload commander Michael Anderson, Kalpana Chawla, commander Rick Husband, Laurel Clark and Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon.

PHOTOS: Epic Aurora Photos From the Space Station

Heeding the advice of the Columbia accident investigation board, NASA decided to retire its remaining three space shuttles once construction of the space station was finished. After 21 post-Columbia shuttle missions to the station, plus one last servicing call to the Hubble Space Telescope, NASA grounded the fleet. Shuttle Atlantis, pictured above, completed the last flight on July 21, 2011. On the second to last mission, sister ship Endeavour delivered the station’s premier science experiment, a multi-national $2 billion particle detector known as the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer. With the shuttles out of service, NASA again was dependent on Russia to fly crews to the station.

PHOTOS: Inside Atlantis' Final Space Station Mission

As part of its post-shuttle planning, NASA embarked on a controversial, cost-cutting program to purchase flight services, rather than build and operate its own spaceships, for transportation to and from the station. Ultimately, two companies, Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, and Orbital Sciences, which has since merged with another firm and is now known as Orbital ATK, began making cargo runs to the station. SpaceX got there first, with a test run in May 2012, pictured above. Astronauts aboard the station use a robotic arm to snare the capsule from orbit and berth it to the station. NASA also has given launch contracts and financial support to SpaceX and Boeing to fly station crew as well.

PHOTOS: Meet the Space Station's Resupply Fleet

With two new supply lines to the station, NASA was happily back making cargo runs to the station until launch accidents temporarily grounded both firms. Pictured above, an Orbital Antares rocket, carrying a Cygnus cargo ship, exploded minutes after liftoff from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Wallops Island, Virginia, on Oct. 28, 2014. The company plans to resume flights on a new version of Antares in 2016. Meanwhile, Orbital has purchased two rides for Cygnus capsules on United Launch Alliance Atlas rockets. SpaceX, which also flies commercial satellites on its Falcon 9 rockets, had a launch accident on June 28, 2015, during its seventh resupply run to the station. SpaceX is planning to resume flights in December, though its next station cargo flight is not expected until January at the earliest.

PHOTOS: 'Space Invader' Found on International Space Station

Despite launch accidents, political turmoil and financial concerns, the 15-nation station partnership has endured and become a model for future international programs to send astronauts and cosmonauts farther into space. In March, NASA and Russia began the first of what is expected to be series of year-long missions in an attempt to learn more about how spaceflight impacts the human body and mind. NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, pictured above, and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko are serving as the first subjects, work that scientists hope will pave the way for three-year missions to Mars.

PHOTOS: Inside the First 100 Days of a Year in Space