ISS Utilization: BEAM (Bigelow Expandable Activity Module)
In January 2013, NASA awarded a contract to the commercial company Bigelow Aerospace of North Las Vegas, NV, to buy a Bigelow Aerospace expandable habitat and attach it to the ISS (International Space Station) for a two-year test flight. The prototype, called BEAM (Bigelow Expandable Activity Module), is scheduled to fly in 2015 aboard a SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies Corporation) Dragon cargo resupply mission.
NASA's partnership with Bigelow opens a new chapter in the continuing work to bring the innovation of industry to space, heralding cutting-edge technology that can allow humans to thrive in space safely and affordably. Funding for the Bigelow prototype, a windowless, pumpkin-shaped module about the size of a large walk-in closet, comes not from the space station program, but from NASA’s AES (Advanced Exploitation Systems) program budget. 1) 2) 3)
Figure 1: Artist's rendition of the Bigelow Aerospace BEAM depicted as a new addition to the ISS (image credit: Bigelow, NASA)
Both NASA and Bigelow stand to gain from putting an inflatable module on the ISS. Given the fact that inflatable modules could play a major role in any future NASA interplanetary spacecraft or surface base, NASA could gain valuable in-flight data from an inflatable module on ISS, as well as much-needed stowage space. Bigelow would gain confidence in – and operational experience with – its inflatable modules in a crewed environment, confidence which would undoubtedly also be gained by any potential future customers to Bigelow. Given that the ISS is a permanently crewed operational environment, it is an ideal testbed to demonstrate these technologies. 4)
Already in January 2011, the ISSP (International Space Station Program) managers at NASA/JSC ( Johnson Space Center) in Houston held a two-day technical meeting to discuss the prospect of adding a Bigelow Aerospace inflatable module to the ISS. A proposal for an inflatable module on the ISS was outlined at NASA’s Exploration Enterprise Workshop, which was held in Galveston, TX, in May 2010 (Ref. 4). 5)
Lightweight fabric structures that can be expanded in orbit offer huge cost savings over comparably sized but heavier metal spacecraft, which are more expensive to launch.
BEAM, for example, has a launch mass of about 1,400 kg, but expands to about 4 m in length and 3.2 m in diameter to provide about 16 m3 of interior space.
Launch: BEAM will be launched to the ISS on a Falcon 9 vehicle as part of SpaceX's CRS-8 (Cargo Resupply Services-8) mission. The launch is scheduled for 2015 from Cape Canaveral, FL. BEAM will travel within the unpressurized cargo hold of a Dragon capsule.
After Dragon has docked to the Station, the Canadarm2 will remove the BEAM from the capsule and connect it to the aft port of Node 3 (Tranquility node). Upon successfully transferring and docking the BEAM to Node 3, an ISS astronaut will activate the deployment sequence, and the BEAM will expand to its full volume. Subsequent to completion of this deployment process, an ISS crew member will enter the BEAM interior, becoming the first astronaut to step inside an expandable habitat system. 6)
During the two-year test period, station crew members and ground-based engineers will gather performance data on the module, including its structural integrity and leak rate. An assortment of instruments embedded within module also will provide important insights on its response to the space environment. This includes radiation and temperature changes compared with traditional aluminum modules.
1) “NASA to Test Bigelow Expandable Module on Space Station,” NASA, January 16, 2013, URL: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/news/beam_feature.html
2) Trent J. Perrotto, “NASA To Test Bigelow Expandable Module On Space Station,” NASA, Release: 13-024, Jan. 16, 2013, URL: http://www.nasa.gov/home/hqnews/2013/jan/HQ_13-024_Bigelow_ISS_Module.html
3) Irene Klotz, “Inflatable Bigelow Module To Fly to Space Station in 2015,” Space News, Jan. 21, 2013, p. 6
4) Pete Harding, Chris Bergin, “Expanding on Bigelow’s inflatable module for the ISS,” NASA, January 12, 2013, URL: http://www.nasaspaceflight.com/2013/01/expanding-on-bigelows-inflatable-module-iss/
5) Leonard David, “International Space Station Could Get Private Inflatable Room,” Space.com, Jan. 26, 2011, URL: http://www.space.com/10686-nasa-bigelow-module-international-space-station.html
6) Expanding Humanity's Future in Space,” Bigelow Aerospace, January 16, 2013, URL: http://www.bigelowaerospace.com/beam_media_brief.php
8) “TransHab Concept,” http://spaceflight.nasa.gov/history/station/transhab/
10) Mark Thompson, “Bigelow's inflatable space stations,” Aug. 27, 2012, URL: http://www.sen.com/feature/bigelow-aerospace-and-the-inflatable-space-stations.html
The information compiled and edited in this article was provided by Herbert J. Kramer from his documentation of: ”Observation of the Earth and Its Environment: Survey of Missions and Sensors” (Springer Verlag) as well as many other sources after the publication of the 4th edition in 2002. - Comments and corrections to this article are always welcome for further updates.