BEAM Successfully Expanded

BEAM Successfully Expanded

“We are declaring manual inflation complete.”  Those words from CAPCOM Jessica Meir at Johnson Space Center’s International Space Station (ISS) Mission Control at 4:10 pm EDT today brought to an end the lengthy process of expanding the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM).  Air from the ISS was allowed into BEAM by astronaut Jeff Williams aboard the ISS opening a valve for prescribed periods of time — often only one second long. 

A total of 2 minutes and 27 seconds of air was allowed in, but it took 7 hours and 6 minutes to accomplish. A total of 25 valve openings were required between 9:04 am EDT and 4:10 pm EDT.   Noises like popcorn popping could be heard as rib stitches inside BEAM gave way as expected.  Long periods of inactivity were the norm as NASA and Bigelow Aerospace engineers carefully monitored the pressure inside BEAM before giving Williams the go ahead to introduce more air or waited through periodic losses of Ku-band TV coverage that ground controllers needed to observe the module’s expansion.

The goal was for the module to reach 68 inches in length compared to its stowed configuration.  During the first try on Thursday, the module expanded only 6 inches, prompting a decision to suspend the effort while engineers reviewed the situation.   They determined that the problem probably was friction between the folds of the fabric of which BEAM is comprised.  BEAM remained in its compressed state for 10 months longer than planned because of a launch delay of the SpaceX CRS-8 (SpX-8) mission following the SpX-7 failure in July 2015.  SpX-8 was launched in April.

The decision was made to try again today and ground controllers took it very slowly throughout the day.  As Williams’ “crew day” was coming to an end, ground controllers debated whether to suspend the operation again or press on.  With Williams’ agreement, they kept going and at 4:10 pm ET the module had reached 67 inches.  Although one inch short of the goal, they decided it was close enough. 

Photo of BEAM after inflation (snip from NASA TV)

The 67 inches is in comparison to its stowed configuration, not its actual length.  When fully deployed, the module is 158 inches (4.01 meters) in length and 127 inches (3.23 meters) in diameter.  The expansion today also increased the diameter to the 127 inches.  BEAM has a volume of 565 cubic feet (16 cubic meters). 

Expansion was followed by pressurization of the module using air from
eight tanks inside BEAM.  That took only 10 minutes and the work was
complete at 4:44 pm EDT. 

A series of leak checks will now ensue and sometime in the coming week ISS crew members will enter the module for the first time.  Their task is only to take measurements. BEAM is a technology demonstrator and will be attached to ISS for two years of tests.  Crews will come and go, but do not plan to use it as an operational portion of the ISS.

Hotel magnate Robert Bigelow, president of Bigelow Aerospace, is trying to convince NASA to allow BEAM to be used to conduct experiments for Bigelow customers.  He said at an April 7 press conference that two companies and two countries have expressed interest.  His longer term plan is for NASA to attach a full-size B330 module to ISS by 2020.  The 330 in B330 refers to its volume of 330 cubic meters, significantly larger than BEAM.  Called XBASE, it would be Bigelow’s next step in a plan that foresees using such modules as habitats in low Earth orbit, on the Moon, and elsewhere in space.  Bigelow is president of Budget Suites of America and envisions space tourism as a promising business.

BEAM is made of fabric (whose details are proprietary) so it can be collapsed into a small volume for launch and then expanded once on orbit.  The concept builds on work NASA did in the 1990s through the TransHab program.  TransHab was terminated because of budget constraints.  Bigelow picked it up and launched two test modules, Genesis I and Genesis II, on Russian rockets in 2006 and 2007.  BEAM is the first such module to be attached to the ISS, hence NASA’s cautious approach in expanding it.


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