The science of expansion: NASA highlights SpaceX CRS-8 experiments
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — NASA held a briefing on Monday, March 28, to provide an overview of the science experiments scheduled to fly in SpaceX’s CRS-8 Dragon spacecraft. NASA has utilized vehicles developed by private firms to send cargo, experiments, and technology demonstrators to the orbiting lab in the post-shuttle era. In terms of CRS-8, one item, in particular, has captured the public’s imagination.
Although numerous experiments will be flying on the Dragon’s wings for this upcoming mission (and some will also use Dragon to return safely to Earth), the focus of yesterday’s telecon was clear – BEAM.
The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module or “BEAM” will be affixed to the exterior of the International Space Station, where it will be occasionally be visited by members of the station’s over the course of its two-year stay on the outpost.
Bigelow Aerospace was unable to share much in the way of details about the module, other than to say that it is composed of an expandable material and that it is covered by a Micrometeoroid and Orbital Debris or “MMOD” shield. Composition, thickness, and other aspects were all described as being proprietary. However, one thing became clear throughout the roughly hour-long discussion – Bigelow has confidence in its design.
The NewSpace Firm gained that confidence through experience. Bigelow has already flown much of the technology used on BEAM to orbit. They achieved this when they sent the Genesis I and Genesis II (in 2006 and 2007, respectively) habitat demonstrators aloft.
Currently, NASA only planned to have crew members enter BEAM about 2–3 times a year, with 3 hours spent inside the inflatable module during each visit, this is according to NASA’s Project and Technical Integration Manager, Rajib Dasgupta.
“They could certainly stay more than three hours if they want to,” Dasgupta said. “There is no technical or safety reason that we cannot extend that time.”
While BEAM is certified to remain on the station for up to five years, it is scheduled to remain on the ISS for about two. The reason for its eventual disposal will be that the port it will be connected to on the station’s Tranquility module is needed for other utilization purposes.
Dasgupta stated that, for NASA, the differences between the Genesis habitats and BEAM included having expandable module technology certified to human-rated standards, that some of the structural factors and the crews’ safety were higher for a human-rated as opposed to an uncrewed module.
Bigelow’s Lisa Kauke, who serves as BEAM’s deputy program manager, noted that other than demonstrating that crew could enter the facility on orbit, little new data will be provided that hasn’t already been gained on the flights of Genesis I and II.
“There’s not much more for us [to learn] as a company, we’re really comfortable with the technology, we’ve certainly demonstrated successfully that these modules can hold their pressure on orbit…,” Kauke told SpaceFlight Insider. “Really for us it’s one more step, having the astronauts interact, there is a little data that we’re getting, but it’s been a pretty smooth path to this point for our technology.”
Kauke also told SpaceFlight Insider that the primary difference from the Genesis habitats and BEAM is that this new temporary component of the space station expands axially, whereas the Genesis stations expanded radially.
BEAM will be transported in the unpressurized trunk section of the Dragon up to the ISS, which orbits at an altitude of some 265 miles (426 kilometers). While BEAM might have been the focal point of Monday’s media event, it is far from the only payload on the CRS-8 Dragon’s manifest. A partial review of some of the other experiments being flown on CRS-8 (provided by NASA) includes the following:
- Life science investigations focusing on musculoskeletal changes in space, which could provide insight into muscle-wasting diseases on Earth, and protein crystallization in microgravity, which could enhance the development and potency of therapeutic drugs.
- Microbial Observatory-1, at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, will track and monitor changes to microbial flora on the space station over time, which could help us understand how such microbes could affect crew health during future long-duration missions.
- Veg-03, at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, will continue the Veggie plant growth facility’s experiments by cultivating cabbage as part of the Pick-and-Eat Salad initiative to develop a sustainable food supplement for long-duration spaceflight.
- Micro-10 will conduct a study of fungi in space for the purpose of potentially developing new medicine for use both in space and back on Earth.
- Genes in Space-1 is a student-designed experiment to test whether the polymerase chain reaction – a fast and relatively inexpensive technique that can amplify or “photocopy” small segments of DNA – could be used to study DNA alterations that astronauts experience during spaceflight.
At present, SpaceX is poised to launch the CRS-8 Dragon on April 8 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 40 in Florida. The instantaneous (1 second) launch window is set to open at 4:43 p.m. EDT (20:43 GMT). In total, Dragon will be ferrying more than 3,800 lbs (1,724 kilograms) of cargo, crew supplies, experiments, and technology demonstrators to the outpost. The ISS is the site of some 250 experiments that will either begin or be continued as a part of Expeditions 47 and 48.
Video courtesy of NASA / Bigelow Aerospace
Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.