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.
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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.
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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.
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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.