BEAM – The First Inflatable Space Station Module
NASA will be using the International Space Station for testing BEAM, the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module. These tests will be happening soon, as the module will be delivered to the space station via the next SpaceX cargo mission, along with other supplies. When it arrives, astronauts will use the space station’s robotic arm to attach BEAM to the Tranquility node’s aft port, and then “inflate” the activity module with its own compressed air.
Photo Credit: Bigelow Aerospace
An Inflatable What?
That’s right–an inflatable habitat! Welcome to the advancement of space exploration. Measuring a volume of about 16 cubic meters (about the size of a large tent) when inflated, BEAM will remain attached to the space station for 2 years of testing. The forerunner of much bigger projects, this expandable activity module is a test platform for reducing the cost, weight and volume of future payloads, bringing mankind even closer to touchdown on the next planet–Mars.
Composed of several layers and inner bladders made from different material combinations–involving Kevlar and that fireproof stuff they use for liners under a car’s bonnet–Bigelow boasts its module affords radiation and ballistic protection equivalent to or greater than that of the International Space Station’s rigid exterior at half the weight. BEAM, of course, will also provide thermal protection, and is supposed to reasonably protect astronauts from all the dangers outer space presents. While it remains attached to the space station, astronauts will periodically enter the habitat to monitor its success or failure. When testing is over, the habitat will be jettisoned away to burn up as it falls through the earth’s atmosphere.
While NASA foots the $17.8 million to put BEAM into action, Bigelow Aerospace is already hard at work on the BA 330, its own expandable space station that would provide a volume of 330 cubic meters and will house up to six astronauts. But Bigelow has even bigger plans–an inflatable space station with over 2000 cubic meters of internal volume! BEAM’s stay on the aging International Space Station will serve as more than just a testing platform; it is, essentially, a chance for Bigelow Aerospace to show off, and demonstrate the latest advances in space exploration.
Getting to Mars
It’s all about making what was once thought impossible feasible, not to mention affordable. By cutting the weight and volume of payloads, space exploration will have a new lease on life, as fewer launches will be required. As functional, habitable bases are in the works for the moon, getting their components there efficiently as possible is crucial. One of BEAM’s roles is to test the technology in an environment similar to the moon’s, since the earth’s natural satellite will be the launch pad for the first manned missions to the Red Planet, the next great frontier. The advent of an inflatable space station will make it all–and more–possible.