Is the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) the future of outer space habitation? Bigelow Aerospace hopes to demonstrate that it is with the launch of BEAM on the next launch of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, reports Space.com.
“This will give us the opportunity to demonstrate expandable-habitat technology as part of a crewed system for the very first time,” said Michael Gold, director of Washington, D.C., operations and business growth for Bigelow Aerospace. “This will be a very big step.”
The inflatable habitat is launched in a tightly packed configuration, taking up less room in a rocket than traditional metal habitats. When expanded, they offer much more living space when they reach their destinations. They also offer greater protection against space radiation and debris strikes than metal modules do, Bigelow contends.
The idea of inflatable habitats has been around for more than 50 years but the earliest model, made of rubber, would have been destroyed by any meteoroid or piece of space junk. The concept had to be shelved until materials science advanced to the point where Kevlar-like weaves were strong enough to withstand the space environment.
Bigelow won a $17.8 million NASA contract to install BEAM on the International Space Station. The mission is primarily a technology demonstration. When inflated, the structure will measure 13 feet by 10.5 feet, with 565 cubic feet of living space. BEAM doesn’t have any water or power hookups, so the options for use are limited. Bigelow officials suggested that the module could provide storage space, serve as a testing ground for tiny cubesats, or host certain scientific experiments.
“I also hear that it’ll be the quietest location on the ISS, so throw in a couple of sleeping bags, and maybe even the astronauts can stay there,” said Gold.
Looking toward the future, Bigelow is developing a larger model, the B330, which will provide 11,650 cubic feet of space, enough to support a crew of six astronauts. Gold says that with minor variations, the B330 could serve as the living quarter for astronauts on the surface of the Moon or the long journey to Mars. “It’s a standard module that could become the backbone in terms of future habitation.”