SpaceX Ready to Launch Bigelow BEAM Module to ISS for NASA

SpaceX Ready to Launch Bigelow BEAM Module to ISS for NASA

SpaceX’s eighth operational commercial cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS), SpaceX CRS-8 (or SpX-8), is on track for launch tomorrow at 4:43 pm ET from Cape Canaveral, FL.  The weather is 90 percent favorable.  Among the 7,000 pounds of supplies, equipment and experiments in its Dragon capsule is the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) developed by Bigelow Aerospace in partnership with NASA. 

SpaceX will attempt to land the Falcon 9 first stage on one of its autonomous drone ships out at sea.  It has attempted such landings four times so far without success.  Its one successful return was back at Cape Canaveral on land.   SpaceX Vice President Hans Koenigsman explained today that the decision on whether to land at sea or on terra firma depends on the trajectory needed for a particular mission and an ocean landing is needed in this case.  Eventually, the company hopes to be able to return one-third to one-half of its rockets to land as part of its goal to have reusable rockets.  Only one reusable rocket system has been successfully developed to date — NASA’s space shuttle.

The Dragon spacecraft being launched tomorrow is packed with a range of scientific experiments to be conducted on ISS, including those to study muscle atrophy and bone loss, seek insight into interactions of particle flows at the nanoscale level, and use protein crystal growth to help design new drugs.   ISS Deputy Chief Scientist Kirt Costello said 4,300 pounds of the cargo is for “utilization” of the ISS, of which 3,100 pounds is the BEAM module.  Koenigsman added that BEAM is packed into a structure inside the unpressurized Dragon trunk and all together weighs 6,000-7,000 pounds.

Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM).   Image credit: Bigelow Aerospace.

BEAM is an expandable module that millionaire hotel magnate Robert Bigelow hopes will someday be used for space stations in low Earth orbit and habitats on the Moon or other locations in space.  NASA was developing an expandable module called Transhab in the 1990s that was to be used as a habitation module on ISS, but it was cancelled due to budget issues.  Bigelow picked up the program and continued its development, launching two test modules, Genesis I and II, using Russian rockets in 2006 and 2007 respectively.  He was a participant in one of the two NASA press conferences today about the SpX-8 mission.

Such technology is often referred to an “inflatable” rather than “expandable.”   NASA’s Jason Crusan explained the distinction today using balloons and tents as examples.  Balloons inflate when air is introduced, but when the air is removed, collapse.  They have no structure.  Expandables are like tents, which are compact for transportation, but once assembled retain their structure even if windows are opened or people enter or leave.

BEAM is 5.7 feet long and 7.5 feet in diameter when packed; 12 feet long and 10.5 feet in diameter when expanded, with 565 cubic feet of interior volume.  It is made of a soft fabric (Bigelow Aerospace declines to say exactly what) rather than metal like the other ISS modules and therefore can be launched in a compact form.  Mass and volume constrain what can be launched with a given rocket, so expandable modules could be an important evolution for crewed spacecraft.

This is the first time a crew will be able to interact with such a module.  The primary goals are basic, such as learning exactly how it expands.  The robotic Canadarm2 will move BEAM from the Dragon’s trunk to a port on the ISS Tranquility module.  (Interestingly, Tranquillity is the name for “Node 3,” which at one time was to be the connection point between the rest of the ISS and Transhab.)  BEAM then will be slowly expanded to see what happens.  Crusan explained that NASA has done a lot of modeling, but models are just models.  There is no substitute for experience.  Bigelow said BEAM was packaged a year ago and they are not entirely certain of its behavior, while ISS program manager Kirk Shireman asserted that “the devil’s in the details” and that is the “beauty” of this test  flight, to learn what will happen in expanding and using it.  

NASA plans to keep BEAM attached to ISS for two years, with crews entering it occasionally to emplace instruments to monitor temperature, radiation and other parameters.  Otherwise it is empty.  When asked today if the crew could use it more often — perhaps to get away from the noise in the ISS (caused by air circulation fans in particular) — Crusan said there are no restrictions, but since air exchange with the ISS is involved, it is not entirely quiet.  

Bigelow’s interest in expandable modules is from a business standpoint.  In the near-term, he hopes to launch two of his larger, self-sufficient B330 modules in 2020.  Docked together they could function as a small space station.   BEAM has no life support or other environmental systems — it relies on ISS for that — while the B330s can operate independently.  He hopes to attract foreign companies and nations that do not have their own space stations, but want to do research in space or just have their own astronauts for national prestige reasons.  

As for BEAM itself, Bigelow said two companies and two countries have expressed interest in using it for commercial activities and “maybe” NASA will grant permission. 

NASA plans to keep BEAM attached to ISS for two years.  Then it will be detached and burn up on reentry.   NASA is, however, trying to facilitate a transition to commercial space stations in low Earth orbit after use of the ISS ends.  U.S. policy is to support ISS through 2024, though NASA officials often talk about 2028 — when the first ISS modules will be 30 years old — as a potential end point, though recently they stress that they do not want to set a firm date, but to ascertain when the work of ISS is done.   Bigelow modules are one possibility for future commercial space stations to succeed ISS where NASA may be one customer, but not the developer, owner or operator.

All of this depends on a successful SpX-8 launch.   The weather forecast for the 4:43 pm ET launch tomorrow is excellent, with only a 10 percent chance of a weather violation due to winds.  NASA and SpaceX will both provide live coverage.  If all goes according to plan, Dragon will arrive at the ISS on Sunday and remain there until May 11.   It is the first time that SpaceX’s Dragon and Orbital ATK’s Cygnus will be docked at the ISS simultaneously.  

Dragon is designed to survive reentry and land in the ocean, so will bring back the results of scientific experiments and failed equipment NASA wants to analyze.  

This is the first launch of Dragon to the ISS since a failed attempt on June 28, 2015.  In that case, the Falcon 9’s second stage failed and there was speculation that the Dragon spacecraft might have been able to survive a fall even from that altitude if its parachutes had deployed, but the software was not programmed to activate the parachutes during launch.  That has changed, Koenigsman said, and Dragon could land softly in the water in a similar situation this time, saving the cargo.  Shireman added that Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approval was needed since it regulates commercial launches and reentries, and two of three phases had been approved, while a third “further downrange” is still being worked.  He added that the logistical issue of getting out to the Dragon to retrieve it remains, but NASA welcomes the possibility.

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.