Call it a notable baby step for mankind.
NASA’s Jeff Williams, pictured, became the first astronaut to clomp around inside Bigelow Aerospace’s BEAM space habit June 6. Not quite a Neil Armstrong moment perhaps, but the space agency clearly is pleased to tout progress in the quest to develop mobile space habitats.
BEAM, or Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, has been docked at the International Space Station since April. Developed by Las Vegas-based Bigelow Aerospace, it was toted to the space station by an unmanned SpaceX Dragon cargo spacecraft in compressed form and fully inflated May 28.
Williams opened the BEAM hatch at 4:47 a.m., with Russian cosmonaut Oleg Skripochka assisting. He then entered the module to collect an air sample and to download sensor data regarding dynamics of the BEAM’s expansion.
Williams told flight controllers at Mission Control in Houston that BEAM looked “pristine.” He added it was cold inside but showed no signs of internal condensation.
ISS crewmembers again will enter the module to check further on sensors and equipment on June 7 and 8, with the BEAM hatch re-shut until then.
Said NASA of its collaboration with Bigelow Aerospace: “The BEAM is an example of NASA’s increased commitment to partnering with industry to enable the growth of the commercial use of space. … Expandable habitats are designed to take up less room when being launched but provide greater volume for living and working in space once expanded.”
Eventually, expandable habitats such as BEAM or others in development at Bigelow and elsewhere could be used both for public and private missions such as near-Earth asteroid mining operations or deep-space explorations to Mars and beyond.
The initial BEAM entry activities marked the start of a two-year period of similar operations and testing. During the first operation, Williams also took an air sample, placed caps on some ascent vent valves, installed ducting to assist in BEAM’s air circulation, retrieved deployment data sensors and manually opened pressurization tanks designed to ensure that all of the module’s air was released during inflation.
In the next two operations, Williams is set to install sensors for gathering data on how BEAM performs in the thermal environment of space and how it reacts to radiation, micrometeoroids space debris.
ISS crew will enter the module a few more times each year of its stay at the space station to collect temperature, pressure and radiation data, and to check on its structural condition. At the end of the two years, BEAM will be jettisoned from the ISS to burn up on re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere.