NASA Plans to Extend Use of Bigelow’s BEAM on ISS

NASA Plans to Extend Use of Bigelow’s BEAM on ISS

NASA issued a notice today that it plans to award a sole source contract to Bigelow Aerospace to continue use of the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) that is attached to the International Space Station (ISS).  BEAM has been used only as a technology demonstration so far. NASA now wants to use it for on-orbit storage and will allow Bigelow to use it for its own technology demonstrations.

A synopsis of the solicitation states that NASA plans to award the contract in the first quarter of FY2018, which began yesterday and runs through December 31.  It explains the rationale for making a sole source award, but gives other companies 15 days to indicate their interest and capabilities for performing the work.  The contract is for “sustaining engineering, anomaly resolution, and engineering analysis, in addition to BEAM stowage and life-extension certification.”

BEAM module, attached to the International Space Station, after it was expanded. Screengrab from NASA TV.

BEAM was launched on the SpaceX CRS-8 mission on April 8, 2016 in the trunk of the Dragon capsule. After Dragon arrived at the ISS, the robotic Canadarm2 was used to move BEAM to the Tranquility Module.  It was expanded on May 28, 2016 under the close supervision of astronaut Jeff Williams, a process that took 7 hours and 6 minutes.

BEAM is made of fabric (whose details are proprietary), rather than metal, so it can be collapsed into a small volume for launch and then expanded once on orbit. (It is often referred to as “inflatable,” but expandable is the correct term).  When expanded, it has a volume of 16 cubic meters.

Astronauts have entered it 13 times to take environmental readings, but it has not been used operationally yet.  NASA is studying aspects such as structural integrity and thermal stability, as well as resistance to space debris, radiation and microbial growth.

The expandable module concept builds on work NASA did in the 1990s through the TransHab program, which was terminated for budgetary reasons.  Bigelow picked it up and launched two test modules, Genesis I and II, on Russian rockets in 2006 and 2007.  The company continued developing the technology, leading to BEAM.

NASA’s original contract with Bigelow was to keep BEAM on ISS for two years and then jettison it, but NASA has concluded that BEAM has value as a storage compartment and wants to keep it there.  NASA said the new contract would overlap the originally contracted test period, for a minimum of three years, with two options to extend for one additional year.  A decision on whether to jettison it at that point or continue using it will be made thereafter.

The agency said that not only would NASA use it for stowage, but Bigelow will be allowed to use it “as a test-bed for new technology demonstrations.”

BEAM is only a demo.  Bigelow’s full size module is the B330 with 330 cubic meters of volume.  Company founder and President Robert Bigelow has been trying to convince NASA to allow a B330 to be attached to the ISS by 2020, a concept he calls XBASE.   The announcement today made no mention of the larger module.

User Comments has the right (but not the obligation) to monitor the comments and to remove any materials it deems inappropriate.  We do not post comments that include links to other websites since we have no control over that content nor can we verify the security of such links.