NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems Program has awarded a $17.8 million contract to Bigelow Aerospace to provide a Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, which is scheduled to arrive at the space station in 2015 for a two-year technology demonstration.
The contract was announced Jan. 16 at a press briefing at Bigelow’s North Las Vegas site, by Lori Garver, NASA deputy administrator, and Robert T. Bigelow, founder and president.
BEAM is scheduled to launch aboard the eighth SpaceX cargo resupply mission to the station contracted by NASA, currently planned for 2015. Following the arrival of the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft carrying the BEAM to the station, astronauts will use the station’s robotic arm to install the module on the aft port of the Tranquility node.
After the module is berthed to the Tranquility node, the station crew will activate a pressurization system to expand the structure to its full size using air stored within the packed module.
At the space station, it will be attached to an air lock and then inflated like a balloon and expanded by a factor of 10 to its full size — about 13 feet long and 10 feet in diameter, with about 560 cubic feet of space inside. At least initially, it will remain empty as NASA gathers data about its characteristics, including temperature and protection against micrometeorites.
The balloon like structure is carefully designed not to pop. The fabric walls will consist of several layers including Vectran, a bullet-resistant material. Even if punctured by a high-speed meteorite, the fabric does not tear. A hole in a metal structure in space, by comparison, can cause explosive decompression as air rushes out.
When the Beam module reaches the space station, astronauts might go to it to seek solitude: engineers expect it will be the quietest spot there. The fabric walls absorb sound vibrations instead of transmitting them.
During the two-year test period, station crew members and ground-based engineers will gather performance data on the module, including its structural integrity and leak rate. An assortment of instruments embedded within module also will provide important insights on its response to the space environment. This includes radiation and temperature changes compared with traditional aluminum modules. Following the test period, the module will be jettisoned from the station, burning up on re-entry.
“For pennies on the dollar, NASA will be able to test a technology that could have implications for future exploration,” said Garver. “It represents a new way of doing business.”
Bigelow Aerospace was founded by Bigelow in 1999. He made a fortune in construction and hotels, and licensed the technology from NASA. He has invested more than $250 million in the venture. In June 2006 the Genesis I was launched to orbit, using the Russian Dnepr rocket. Genesis measured 14.4 feet long by 8.3 feet diameter, and has 410 cubic feet of volume. In July 2007, Bigelow launched Genesis II, of the same size. They have an estimated life in orbit of 12 years.
“The International Space Station is a uniquely suited test bed to demonstrate innovative exploration technologies like the BEAM,” said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for human exploration and operations at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “As we venture deeper into space on the path to Mars, habitats that allow for long-duration stays in space will be a critical capability. Using the station’s resources, we’ll learn how humans can work effectively with this technology in space, as we continue to advance our understanding in all aspects for long-duration spaceflight aboard the orbiting laboratory.”
The fold-up, blow-up approach solves the conundrum of how to build something voluminous that can be packed into the narrow payload confines of a rocket. The soft sides of the BEAM module will allow it to be scrunched like a T-shirt in a suitcase.
BEAM revives a concept that NASA developed more than a decade ago for an inflatable four-story crew quarters on the space station. Congress halted the work as the station’s construction costs grew sharply.
“This program starts a relationship that we think, and we hope, is going to be meaningful between NASA and ourselves,” Bigelow said.
Low-Earth orbit, he said, is the “first target,” but larger modules could be used for stations in deep space or for habitats on the Moon. “We have ambitions to get to the Moon someday, to have a base there,” Bigelow said.
If BEAM is successful, NASA will probably incorporate the technology into any manned mission to an asteroid or elsewhere in the solar system, or to build a base on the Moon or Mars. Inflatables could also overturn notions of what a spacecraft ought to look like: Instead of the sleek, shiny machines imagined in science fiction, the practical ones of the future may be blobby, soft-sided contraptions.
Bigelow holds space ambitions of his own. His company is building two much larger inflatable modules, each with 11,600 cubic feet of space, to launch as the world’s first private space station, docked together as station Alpha. The plan is to lease space on Alpha to countries that want to set up low-cost space programs and companies that want to conduct zero-gravity research. Tourists might be invited, too.
At the news conference, Bigelow announced prices for travelers to his space station: $26.25 million for a 60-day stay, including the ride to orbit atop a Falcon 9 rocket built by SpaceX. If the traveler wished to book the rocket ride in a more expensive capsule under development by Boeing—the CST 100-the cost would be about $10 million more.
Bigelow said the pieces of his private space station would be ready for business as soon as other companies were able to provide the rocket transportation for the people going up and down. The first Bigelow station, which could be in orbit by late 2016, would be large enough to house a dozen people, twice as many as the International Space Station. The company intends to build additional ones to meet demand, and it has already begun designing an enormous module with 74,000 cubic feet of space.