Minimize ISS: BEAM

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.


• In the late 1990s, NASA was engaged in the development of TransHab, a large inflatable habitat in space who's multi-layer shell was based on Kevlar high-strength fibers (TransHab requirements called for an inflated volume of 340 m3 , 11 m in length and 4.3 m in diameter, and a launch mass of 13,200 kg) for protection from orbital and meteoroid debris. TransHab was intended as a replacement for the already existing rigid International Space Station crew habitation module. However, the US Congress (and NASA) cancelled the TransHab project in 2000 due to budgetary constraints. 7) 8)

• Bigelow Aerospace was founded by Robert Bigelow in 1998. The company is a pioneering world leader in the area of expandable space station modules.

• In 2002, Bigelow Aerospace signed a NASA Space Act Agreement contract with the Technology Transfer and Commercialization Office of NASA/JSC. That agreement (exclusive license) enabled the private group and NASA to work together on evaluating next generation inflatable/expandable space module technology. Thus, Bigelow Aerospace started to pursue a development scheme for a civilian space complex - using the patents developed by NASA. The TransHab concept originated at NASA/JSC in 1997 as a possible design for inflatable living quarters on future Mars-bound spacecraft, and was led by William Schneider who became a Bigelow Aerospace consultant after his retirement from NASA. 9)

• Bigelow Aerospace launched the Genesis-1 and Genesis-2 inflatable pathfinder modules (each of 11.5 m3 volume) in 2006 and 2007, respectively, after licensing the patent from NASA, gaining long-term experience in the handling and operation of these structures in the LEO (Low Earth Orbit) space environment. Both spacecraft modules, Genesis-1 and Genesis-2, are “operating nominally” in 2013.

- One of the greatest benefits of using inflatable habitats is the protection offered to its inhabitants from radiation. When spacecraft made from more conventional metal structures are exposed to radiation, from events such as a coronal mass ejection, a secondary radiation effect occurs. This can either be from scattering of the radiation, or the atoms in the structure itself can become excited and re-radiate. This doesn't happen with non-metallic materials used in inflatable craft outer skins thereby significantly reducing the risk to its inhabitants.

- At the heart of the inflatable technology is a material called Vectran, twice as strong as Kevlar and present in several layers of the 15cm thick skin of the Genesis craft. The flexible nature of the material results in further added safety for potential station inhabitants, a benefit supported by laboratory tests. It was found that micrometeoroids that would puncture the rigid skin of the International Space Station only penetrated half way through the skin of the Genesis craft (Ref. 10).

- As a consequence of these very positive results gained with Genesis-1 and Genesis-2, NASA is confident that the ISS is a uniquely suited test bed to demonstrate innovative exploration technologies like the BEAM endeavor. Habitats that allow for long-duration stays in space will be a critical capability.

Table 1: Some background on the development of Bigelow Aerospace inflatable structures 7) 8) 9) 10)

1) “NASA to Test Bigelow Expandable Module on Space Station,” NASA, January 16, 2013, URL:

2) Trent J. Perrotto, “NASA To Test Bigelow Expandable Module On Space Station,” NASA, Release: 13-024, Jan. 16, 2013, URL:

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:

5) Leonard David, “International Space Station Could Get Private Inflatable Room,”, Jan. 26, 2011, URL:

6) Expanding Humanity's Future in Space,” Bigelow Aerospace, January 16, 2013, URL:

7) T. Dinerman, “Genesis and the future space hotel,” The Space Review, July 17, 2006,

8) “TransHab Concept,”

9) D. Schrimpsher, “Interview: TransHab developer William Schneider,” The Space Review, Aug. 21, 2006,

10) Mark Thompson, “Bigelow's inflatable space stations,” Aug. 27, 2012, URL:

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.