Later this spring, NASA will launch an experimental, inflatable capsule that will be attached to the outside of the International Space Station and will, someday, house visiting astronauts. The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) is an attempt to create structures that are compact and portable, without sacrificing durability or safety. If the tests produce positive results, this inflatable model could inspire the next generation of outer space living quarters.
Whenever “NASA” and “experimental” are used in a single sentence, a certain segment of the population (also known as ‘we space nerds’) shifts to the edge of our seats. The concept of human beings eventually living in what is essentially a balloon in space may be nerve-wracking to some, but the BEAM project, developed at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, is a crucial component of the future space-dwelling design. But, first there have to be some baby steps.
This spring, the SpaceX Dragon will carry BEAM and other cargo to the ISS. There, a crew member will use a robotic arm to extract the compacted balloon house and attach it to a port on the station’s Tranquility node, which was installed in 2010. During transport, BEAM will be compressed to just 5.7 feet long and less than 7.75 feet in diameter. Then, BEAM will be expanded to its full capacity of 12 feet long and 10.5 feet in diameter, effectively serving as an ‘add-on’ to the space station. The multilayer skin of this new bonus room contains an air-sealed layer to keep the room pressurized, as well as micro-meteoroid and orbital debris (MMOD) layers to protect it from external damage.
For a year, ISS crew members will monitor the BEAM’s condition and conduct tests to determine how it performs. Once the test period is complete, the inflatable structure will be dismantled and jettisoned back down toward Earth, where it will burn up upon re-entry, leaving little to no trace of the first inflatable “space house” in history.
Images via NASA