Inflatable module should be a lightweight way to get more space in space
We have sent humans to the stratosphere in balloons. We have sent human accommodations to orbit. Now the two ideas are being brought together in a new, inflatable module for the International Space Station (ISS). The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) has been in some form of development for over a decade, and while it’s being sent up to space this Friday, astronauts still won’t be able to relax in the quiet, squishy enclosure any time soon. This particular BEAM is just a test for bigger, more ambitious, habitable balloons, and as such will be mostly empty for two years before being sent to pop (ok, burn up) in the Earth’s atmosphere.
Ensuring structural integrity
An inflated BEAM will be 13 feet long by 10.6 feet across, making it a relatively spacious room on the ISS. Compared to the metal walls of other ISS modules, BEAM will be quiet, and theoretically comfy if astronauts were allowed to do more than take readings inside of it. For now, they’ll be in charge of inflating the module with shared air from the ISS, then occasionally checking on things like temperature, pressure, and radiation levels. Similar structures, called Genesis I and Genesis II, have been safely in orbit since 2006, so expectations are that BEAM should face no real problems during it’s brief two years on the ISS.
The driving force behind the BEAM design isn’t so much what it’s like when it’s big, but how relatively small it is when leaving the Earth. At 3,100 pounds and a packed size under eight by six feet, it’s considered a fairly efficient way to get 556 cubic feet of workspace off the ground. This is key, because it’s the primary advantage that Bigelow Aerospace hopes to prove is worth further development for missions beyond the ISS.
The idea for expandable structures actually goes back at least 60 years. Mylar was a successful invention for early balloon launches, and it wasn’t long before ideas were being pitched for inflatable habitats on the Moon by Barron Hilton of Hilton hotels. Appropriately enough, Robert Bigelow, the man behind the BEAM project, earned the capital to do so through his line of hotels, Budget Suites. Assuming all goes well with this module’s stint attached to the ISS, Bigelow Aerospace is working on an even larger version, the B330, that will offer around 12,000 cubic feet when inflated. The ISS won’t be the target for that project, as it will theoretically be a its own anchor point, linking together into a larger structure. While science and exploration, such as an outpost orbiting the Moon or Mars would be an obvious use, Bigelow Aerospace is also holding the door open for potential space tourism accommodations. Your move, Marriot?
Source: Sarah Scoles by NASA Is Finally Sending a Hotel Magnate’s Inflatable Habitat to the ISS, Wired