NASA is about to send a very welcome BEAM to the International Space Station. This beam is not the latest movie or footage of crew members’ loved ones from home. The BEAM is an inflatable house, properly called a Bigelow Expandable Activity Module. If the prototype sent to the International Space Station is successful, it could make life considerably more comfortable for the crew of astronauts who endure the cramped quarters and lack of privacy that are a given for every mission.
According to the project summary on NASA’s website, BEAM will be transported to the International Space Station in the unpressurized trunk compartment of a SpaceX Dragon supply vehicle. Once the vehicle docks, astronauts will attach the inflatable habitat to the Tranquility module. A packed and ready-to-go BEAM is relatively small. NASA lists the packed dimensions at 5.7 feet long and 7.75 feet in diameter. When inflated, BEAM expands to twelve feet long and ten and a half feet in diameter. The interior of the inflatable house away from home holds approximately 560 cubic feet of pressurized volume.
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The terrestrial weight of BEAM is three thousand pounds, considerably heavier than your average balloon. Much of that weight comes from the multiple layers that make up the walls of of the inflatable structure. NASA’s description of the various layers points to an eye for function and efficient payload expenditure.
“The BEAM module’s skin is made up of multiple layers of soft goods. The different layers of BEAM from inside to outside consist of the air barrier (bladder), restraint, Micro-meteoroid and orbital debris (MMOD) layers, External MLI layers and an exterior BETA cloth. The restraint provides the primary structural load bearing member of the BEAM module. BEAM also has a very robust micro-meteoroid and orbital debris (MMOD) shield. This MMOD shield is designed and tested to the low-Earth orbit MMOD environment.”
To be fair, space is a place where nearly every consideration has to be skewed toward function. NASA’s report on the experiment notes that preliminary tests indicate the skin of the BEAM show the chances it will get punctured by flying space debris are low. However, they have not forgotten how this inflatable house could make astronaut’s lives a little easier.
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The walls of the ISS, like most spacecraft, are metal. For crew members, this means anything striking the sides of the craft would make quite a bit of noise. This would make the ambient noise level somewhat like living inside a large metal barrel for weeks. BEAM’s soft sides mean payload specialists will have a quieter stay, something that has to make those long expeditions more pleasant.
Introverted astronauts looking for a little “me time” won’t be able to move into BEAM right away. The project is still in the experimental phase. NASA says BEAM will be inflated within four months of deployment using the Canadian arm and attachment by the crew. Following its inflation, it will be closely monitored for durability and resistance to radiation. During this part of the BEAM’s attachment to the ISS, crew members will enter the inflatable house three to four times a year for a few hours at a time to collect data and in NASA’s words, “check the general housekeeping conditions of the interior of the module.”
BEAM is a collaboration between NASA and Bigelow Aerospace, a Las Vegas-based company that is currently working to develop technology for both government agencies and commercial applications for space, especially in the area of expanding and improving habitats in space. NASA administrator, Charles Bolden is cited on Bigelow’s information page about the project as a supporter of NASA’s partnership with the aerospace company.
“The world of low Earth orbit belongs to industry. You need to understand where we’re going. A Bigelow module may be the next thing that begins to replace some of the functions of the International Space Station. Low Earth orbit infrastructure belongs to industry… If we don’t have a viable, vibrant low Earth orbit infrastructure supported by them [commercial industry], we’re not getting there [Mars].”
The two year testing period, which is projected to be a part of the to-do lists of International Space Station expeditions 47/48 and 49/50 could very well lead to a revolution in craft and base construction. The idea of space dirigibles is often connected in the public imagination to the works of Jules Verne and was embraced by Steampunk writers and artists. The reality is that NASA has used fabric bladders and experimented with soft craft technology for various purposes since its inception in the mid twentieth century. BEAM, which has been in development at Bigelow for a little over fifteen years, is the next step in refining that concept.
If BEAM is successful, it could mean government agencies like NASA might phase out some of their metal machines for future expeditions. With Mars being a possible next destination, that could mean little inflatable houses for you and me.
[Photo by Bill Ingalls/NASA via Getty Images]