Astronauts might get a flashback to their childhood when SpaceX makes its next trip to the International Space Station (ISS) with an inflatable space habitat. The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) will be folded up and taken to the station on April 8, although once it reaches the ISS it will be inflated after being connected to one of the station's nodes.
SpaceX's Dragon capsule is set to dock with the ISS a couple days after the launch, where the station's robotic arm will grab a hold of BEAM and transfer it to Node 3. The inflation process will take place at the end of May or beginning of June, increasing BEAM to 10 times its launch volume at full inflation.
Inflatable products are ideal for space habitats due to their small mass and flexible volume, making them easier to fit into launch vehicles and even cheaper to launch. Once at full inflation, the unique habitat will create a whole new room for the ISS team.
BEAM possesses sensors inside the module that are used to track thermal, environmental and radiation protection properties, which will aid it during its two-year stay on the ISS to ensure proper functioning. During its time on the ISS, the team of astronauts plans to use the module two to three times every six months for a few hours at a time.
BEAM was created by Bigelow Aerospace, a company founded more than 15 years ago by Robert Bigelow that licensed inflatable habitat technology from NASA after congress cancelled their old expandable habitat project - TransHab - back in 2000. However, space-based inflatables made their debut back in the early 1960s.
In addition to BEAM, NASA is also working with Bigelow Aerospace in order to determine if their B330 inflatable module could provide any utility during their missions to the moon and Mars.
"We're eager to work with NASA to show how B330s can support historic human spaceflight missions to the Moon and other destinations in cislunar space while still staying within the bounds of the Agency's existing budget," said Robert Bigelow, Bigelow Aerospace's president and founder. "NASA originally conceived of expandable habitats decades ago to perform beyond LEO missions, and we at Bigelow Aerospace look forward to finally bringing that vision to fruition."