Beam me up, indeed.
It’s not the space teleporter from “Star Trek,” but International Space Station crew have been feverishly focused on a real-life spaceship BEAM — the expandable space module that’s attached to the orbiting space lab for two years of testing.
Bigelow Aerospace’s Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM, is intended for use as habitat by future colonies on the moon and Mars. BEAM is designed to replace conventional metal modules, which are heavier to transport yet no sturdier to use.
The module was delivered to the ISS on April 10 but was fully inflated only on May 28 and then only after a failed previous attempt. Measuring 13 by 10 feet, the module is designed as a space habitat safe from the threats of radiation or floating debris.
Media wags have taken to calling the BEAM a “space hotel,” but attached to the ISS it’s perhaps better thought of as a home-improvement project for the space station crew.
Not that the BEAM is going to be the crew’s rumpus room at the orbiting space lab. Astronauts mostly will visit the module only periodically to retrieve sensor data and assess conditions.
The module had measured just 7 by 7.75 feet in its packed configuration. Now inflated (top photo, right), testing is planned to ensure its structural integrity.
“Expandable habitats are designed to take up less room on a spacecraft but provide greater volume for living and working in space once expanded,” NASA noted in announcing full inflation of the module. “This (two-year) test of an expandable module will allow investigators to gauge how well the habitat performs and specifically, how well it protects against solar radiation, space debris and the temperature extremes of space.”
The BEAM operations continue against a backdrop of broadening interest in commercially staged orbiting habitats.
Aerospace manufacturer Orbital ATK has been tub-thumping for congressional support of a commercially staged space habitat to orbit the moon.
“A lunar-orbit habitat will extend America’s leadership in space,” Orbital ATK space systems group president Frank Culbertson recently told a House subcommittee on space. “A robust program to build, launch and operate this initial outpost would be built on NASA’s and our international partners’ experience gained in long-duration human space flight on the International Space Station.”
NASA already has tapped the Dulles, Va.-based contractor to do preliminary research on a lunar-orbit habitat.
Meantime, Las Vegas-based Bigelow Aerospace — founded in 1999 by hotel developer Robert Bigelow — also has a much larger cousin to its BEAM module in development. At 12,000 cubic feet, the B330 is designed for use as an orbital habitat or for colonization missions on Mars or elsewhere.
In April, Bigelow Aerospace struck a partnership with United Launch Alliance to develop a pair of B330 habitats. ULA is a joint venture of aerospace mainstays Boeing and Lockheed Martin.
Bigelow and ULA said one of the B330 modules they will develop could be added to the ISS in a fashion similar to the BEAM. That module has a catchy new nickname — XBASE, an acronym for the not-so-catchy Expandable Bigelow Advanced Station Enhancement.
Photos: NASA TV