Last week NASA signed a contract worth $17.8 million with Bigelow Aerospace to build the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), an inflatable module to be tested in orbit berthed to the International Space Station. A few days later a press conference was held in which Robert Bigelow, the company’s founder and president, discussed his plans.
The BEAM module is an evolution of the NASA’s project TransHab, a technology developed starting from the ’90 to create expandable habitats to be inflated in space. The idea was to use such modules to replace the housing module of the International Space Station and possibly in a vehicle to carry humans to Mars. A module of this type would be very compact when deflated and therefore easier to launch into space, where it would be inflated.
In 2000, after delays in the development and because of the rising costs, the U.S.A. Congress ordered to stop working on the project TransHab. Bigelow Aerospace acquired the rights to the patents developed by NASA and resumed research to produce a usable module with the idea to use some of them to build a commercial space station in the near future.
In 2010, NASA reconsidered the idea of creating inflatable modules and this led to an active collaboration with Bigelow Aerospace. The plan is to launch the BEAM module with the eighth mission of the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station, scheduled for 2015.
Once in orbit, the BEAM module will be installed using the robotic arm. Once connected to the station, the module will be pressurized and at that point they can start the tests, which will last two years. Apart from the obvious resistance test, checks will be carried out on the internal temperature and the radiation that will penetrate, comparing their absolute values and changes over time with the same measured in the other modules of the station.
At first glance, the technology of the BEAM module may seem less secure than traditional modules in aluminum. Actually, we must consider that flexibility doesn’t automatically imply fragility. The BEAM module has a shell made up of several layers of different materials including Kevlar, the one used for bulletproof vests to be clear.
In 2006 and 2007, Bigelow Aerospace launched into orbit two prototypes called Genesis I and Genesis II, which is still intact. If the BEAM module passed usage tests on the International Space Station, the company will start building the Space Complex Alpha, a commercial space station, but also the Skywalker, a hotel in orbit. If those projects actually go on, it will be a further step forward for commercial space travel.