Sen—With the upcoming flight of its third experimental space habitat, privately owned Bigelow Aerospace hopes more than a decade of work to develop expandable modules for people in low-Earth orbit and beyond will finally come to fruition.
The Las Vegas-based company, owned and operated by self-made billionaire real estate developer Robert Bigelow, was looking forward to the mid-September launch of the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM, to the International Space Station for a two-year test flight. BEAM, which NASA purchased under a $17.8 million contract, is slated to fly to the station aboard the next SpaceX Dragon cargo run, but SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket is temporarily grounded following a June 28 launch accident.
SpaceX is working toward returning to flight as early as this fall, but currently has three missions on its launch schedule before BEAM is due to fly as part of its eighth resupply mission to the station for NASA.
Once it arrives, the station’s robot arm will be used to unpack BEAM from Dragon’s unpressurized trunk and mount the spacecraft to a berthing port on the Tranquility connecting node. BEAM will then be inflated with air, a technology that NASA pioneered in the 1990s and abandoned after Congress cut off funding. In addition to testing the low-cost, lightweight module on the station, NASA has a contract with Bigelow Aerospace to study other ways inflatable habitats might be used to bolster its future human space exploration initiatives.
BEAM will not be Bigelow’s space debut. The company launched its first inflatable prototype, Genesis 1, in 2006, and followed up a year later with Genesis 2. Both van-sized modules remain in orbit today, though their batteries have expired. Eventually the Genesis spacecraft will be pulled back into Earth’s atmosphere and burn up, as they were designed to do.
“One of the most important aspects of the BEAM is that this is supporting people for the first time. When an astronaut steps inside the BEAM, it will not only be a significant moment for us, but for the technology as a whole, demonstrating that we can safely be part of a crewed system and that we can support a human presence,” Bigelow Aerospace operations director Mike Gold said in an interview with Sen.
“We have a lot of confidence going into the BEAM program … but things can always go wrong. It’s space. You can do everything right and problems can still occur,” he said.
Expandable structures like BEAM have several advantages over traditional aluminum spacecraft. The lightweight, balloon-like habitats are made of layers of soft-sided, Kevlar-like materials that are folded up for launch and then deployed in space, slashing launch costs.
BEAM, which expands to 16 cubic meters, weighs about 3,000 pounds (1,360 kg)—less than one-third a similarly sized metallic structure. Inflatable modules offering as much usable internal space as the International Space Station, which has an internal pressurized volume of more than 32,000 cubic feet (906 cubic meters)—roughly equal to a Boeing 747 jet—could be launched into orbit aboard three- to four Atlas 5 or Falcon Heavy-class rockets. In contrast, building the space station required more than 40 launches, mostly by NASA’s pricey and now-retired fleet of heavy-lift space shuttles.
Inflatable habitats also offer a potentially safer radiation environment than metal structures, which can produce body-piercing secondary heavy particles during solar storms and cosmic radiation events. Ground tests suggest that the inflatables’ layers of bulletproof type materials also may weather orbital debris impacts better than traditional rigid structures.
What inflatables don’t have is a long flight history, an issue that will begin to be addressed with BEAM.
“Nothing like this has been done,” Gold said. “This will both validate and demonstrate the enhanced capabilities of expandable systems that we’ve been developing and talking about for a decade, leveraging the lessons learned and proving the capabilities of Genesis 1 and Genesis 2.”
BEAM will not be set up as a living quarters or laboratory during its initial test run aboard the station. Astronauts will periodically float into the module to retrieve data from sensors, collect samples, replace radiation monitors and perform inspections. The window-less module has no lights, power or independent air and environmental systems. It is, however, expected to be one of the quietest rooms on the station.
“I imagine that might have its benefits,” Gold said. “Once BEAM is successfully deployed then NASA can really get creative to its uses and to leveraging the system as best they can.”
One of the first tests for BEAM will be to see how the inflatable fares during its attachment and long-term connection to the station’s metal berthing mechanism. BEAM has been outfitted with a matching metal docking ring, a modification from the free-flying Genesis design.
“There was a great deal that had to go into consideration with the BEAM, relative not so much to the inherent technology itself, but to the integration issues with the space station and with utilizing the arm to attach BEAM to the station.”
Bigelow is working on several follow-on programs to BEAM, including its long-planned, free-flying 330-cubic meter habitat, called the B330, which can support a crew of six. The company plans to lease space aboard B330s to research organizations, businesses and the occasional space tourist.
Bigelow already has preliminary agreements with at least seven non-U.S. space and research agencies in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Australia, Singapore, Japan, Sweden and the United Arab Emirates of Dubai to lease space aboard the orbital habitats. But Bigelow’s biggest customer may turn out to be NASA itself, which is mulling options for programs that not only will follow the International Space Station, which flies about 250 miles, or 400 kilometers, above the planet, but also which can eventually extend human presence beyond low-Earth orbit. In particular, NASA is interested in the inflatable habitat technology to house crewmembers during expeditions that exceed the Orion capsule’s 21-day capability.
“NASA has no (flight) experience with expandables. They don’t know how to judge, rate, work with, test or understand the systems. This exposure with BEAM will be very important for them to be able to make decisions about utilizing expandable systems, versus the rigidified hardware, in the future,” Gold said.
Bigleow’s recently signed study contract with NASA, under a program called NextSTEP, aims to flesh out how the B330 habitats can be used to support “safe, affordable, and robust human spaceflight missions to the moon, Mars, and beyond,” Bigelow said in a statement.
“We’re talking about the benefits of expandable habitat technology, via the NextSTEP study, just as we’re proving it at the same time with BEAM,” Gold said.
NextSTEP is not only a bridge to NASA’s future but also a link to its past. In 1997, the U.S. space agency worked to develop an inflatable spacecraft called TransHab, short for Transit Habitat that could be used to transport astronauts to Mars. A version of TransHab also was considered as an alternative crew quarters for the International Space Station.
“TransHab was a very unique and challenging option for ISS crew habitat and one that may be employed for future Mars missions. Due to cost and risk factors an inflatable habitat was not accepted as a replacement for the baseline aluminum crew habitat, but the concept was great,” Daniel Mulville, a former NASA chief engineer and associate deputy administrator, said in an interview for the Johnson Space Center Oral History Project.
TransHab's inflatable foot-thick shell consisted of almost two dozen layers designed to break up particles of space debris and tiny meteorites that may strike with a speed seven times as fast as a bullet, a NASA summary of the project shows.
“The outer layers protect multiple inner bladders, made of a material that holds in the module’s air. The shell also provides insulation from temperatures in space that can range from 121° Celsius (250° Fahrenheit) in the Sun to minus 128° Celsius (minus 200° Fahrenheit) in the shade,” NASA said.
The key to debris protection is successive layers of insulating Nextel, a material commonly used in car hoods that are spaced between several-inches-thick layers of open cell foam, such as what is used in chair cushions. The layers cause a particle to shatter as it hits, losing more and more of its energy as it penetrates deeper.
The shell also includes a layer of super-strong woven Kevlar, which maintains the module’s shape. Air is contained by three bladders of Combitherm, a material used in the food-packing industry. The innermost layer, forming the inside wall of the module, is Nomex cloth, a fireproof material that also protects the bladder from scuffs and scratches.
Work on TransHab ended in 2000. Bigelow Aerospace purchased the rights to the NASA patents and has since evolved its own proprietary version of the technology, one that in the not-too-distant future may be leased back to NASA.
“The reasons NASA needed expandable habitats back in the ‘90s … have not changed. If anything, they’ve become more acute today, where the benefits of additional volume and enhanced protection against radiation and physical debris are more important than ever,” Gold said. “We are we very eager to bring this technology back to its roots.”