BEAM module waits for transportion to the ISS
Bigelow Aerospace is still awaiting word on when their Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) will be transported to the International Space Station (ISS). Engineers at Bigelow packed up the unit for transportation to Florida from their Nevada headquarters in March of this year.
The module was supposed to fly to ISS in September aboard SpaceX’s CRS-8 mission. However, that was before a Falcon 9 rocket, carrying the CRS-7 Dragon cargo ship bound for the outpost disintegrated during launch.
SpaceX is currently working on returning the Falcon 9 rocket to flight status after having determined that the failure was caused by a faulty mounting strut holding the helium tanks in place in the booster’s second stage.
The Return to Flight mission is scheduled to carry a series of 11 satellites for Orbcomm no earlier than sometime in November. This switch to Orbcomm from the originally scheduled SES-9 satellite will let SpaceX test the relight capability of their upgraded upper stage before it is needed on the SES flight.
CRS-8 will launch after the Orbcomm and SES missions fly. BEAM will be tucked into the trunk of the Dragon capsule. Once berthed at the orbiting lab, the station’s robotic arm will take BEAM and berth it to the aft port of the Tranquility module.
The expandable module concept has come full circle as NASA originally designed the system that Bigelow used as its foundation for the BEAM module. That module, called TransHab, would have been a four-level expandable system designed to replace a Habitation module that has since been cancelled. The expandable unit would have provided the crew with significantly more living space. The TransHab was cancelled by congress in 2000 when the space station budget was under significant pressure. Now, the TransHab technology is once again poised to expand the ISS.
The technology that gives BEAM its structure and provides protection for the crew is an amalgamation of existing materials. While BEAM manufacturing techniques have been upgraded and are regarded as a trade secret, the original TransHab module used a dozen layers to build up a one-foot-thick wall capable of absorbing micro-meteorite impacts.
The walls consist of alternating layers of foam and a material called Nextel. These layers provide impact resistance and thermal protection as the outside temperature can vary from –200 °F (–128.9 °C) in the shade to over 250 °F (121.1 °C) in sunlight. The inner structures form an airtight bladder that contains the pressurized atmosphere. Bigelow replaced the Nextel cloth with Vectran and Kevlar during the reengineering process.
TransHab was designed to provide living quarters, but BEAM is a small test article with a modest amount of space gain. BEAM expands to roughly 13 feet (3.96 m) long and 10.5 feet (3.2 m) in diameter, whereas the TransHab module was planned to be 36 feet (10.97 m) long and nearly 25 feet (7.62 m) in diameter.
While additional space for storage is welcome on the ISS, the BEAM module will not be used as living quarters during its stay at the ISS. BEAM will be a two-year test to see how the module holds pressure, protects occupants from radiation, and its effectiveness at micrometeorite impacts.
BEAM is not the first Bigelow expandable structure to soar into orbit. Genesis I is a test article that was launched in 2006. It is 14 feet (4.27 m) long and eight feet (2.44 m) in diameter. It was followed up by a second article called Genesis II in 2007. Both vehicles are still on orbit, although active operations ceased years ago. Both of these units tested expansion techniques as well as module stability and on-orbit operations, including communications.
All three of these test articles (Genesis I, Genesis II and BEAM) are demonstrations for Bigelow’s primary product, the BA-330. This module, as its name implies, will have 330 cubic meters (11,650 cubic feet) of pressurized space. No launch date has been set for a free floating BA-330 and Bigelow has not announced any potential customers, although they have hinted that several countries and private corporations are interested in the module.
Joe Latrell is a life-long avid space enthusiast having created his own rocket company in Roswell, NM in addition to other consumer space endeavors. He continues to design, build and launch his own rockets and has a passion to see the next generation excited about the opportunities of space exploration. Joe lends his experiences from the corporate and small business arenas to organizations such as Teachers In Space, Inc. He is also actively engaged in his church investing his many skills to assist this and other non-profit endeavors.