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Bigelow's inflatable space structures

After the cancellation of the TransHab project, the Nevada-based firm Bigelow Aerospace licensed NASA's engineering heritage in inflatable technology, in the hope of building an orbital hotel for space tourists and commercial researchers.

 

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beam

Technical specifications of the BEAM:

Specification
Folded
Expanded
Mass
1,360 kilograms
1,360 kilograms
Length
2.16 meters
4.01 meters
Diameter
2.36 meters
3.23 meters
Volume
3.6 meters
16 cubic meters

Bigelow's space station was to be comprised of several inflatable structures docked together in the Earth's orbit.

Scaled prototypes of the modules, Genesis Pathfinder-1 and Genesis Pathfinder-2, were delivered into orbit on July 12, 2006, and June 28, 2007, ironically, aboard converted Russian ballistic missiles. Not designed to be inhabited, they were successfully inflated to a volume of around 12 cubic meters.

Bigelow Aerospace also struck a deal with NASA to add a small inflatable structure to the US segment of the ISS. On January 16, 2013, NASA announced the $17.8 million contract to build a Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, BEAM. In terms of its size, BEMA would be a mere shadow of its ill-fated predecessor, TransHab, and it was designed only as an experiment, not a functional vehicle.

As of middle of 2013, the module was scheduled to ride to the station aboard a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft in the summer of 2015. Following some schedule reshuffles, the 1,360 kilogram BEAM module was launched in the "trunk" (unpressurized cargo section) of the Dragon SpX-8 spacecraft on April 8, 2016. Once the Dragon reached the ISS, the station's robotic arm was used to dock the folded BEAM structure to the aft port of the Node-3/Tranquility module on the US segment.

After a 24-hour delay due to a problem in the deployment process, the BEAM was successfully inflated on May 28, 2016, increasing in length from 2.16 meters to 4.01 meters and growing in diameter from 2.36 to 3.23 meters. Most importantly, its volume ballooned from 3.6 to 16 cubic meters. On June 6, NASA astronaut Jeffrey Williams entered the interior of the module for the first time. On the subsequent visit, Williams said that BEAM was "perfectly clean, quiet and has a "new car smell"."

The module is scheduled to remain attached to the ISS for around two years with only once-in-three-months ventures by the crew into its nearly empty interior. During that time, engineers will be monitoring the structure for temperature, pressure and radiation, NASA said.

At the end of the experiment, the BEAM will be released into orbit for a subsequent reentry into the Earth's atmosphere and a fiery demise.

 

Read (and see) much more about this and many other space projects in Russia
in a richly illustrated, large-format glossy edition:

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Page author: Anatoly Zak; Last update: August 10, 2016

Page editor: Alain Chabot; Last edit: August 10, 2016

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orbit

The Genesis Pathfinder module orbits the Earth. Credit: Bigelow Aerospace


bigelow

A scale model of the inflatable space station module developed at Bigelow Aerospace. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2012 Anatoly Zak


lunar

A lunar base concept based on inflatable modules developed at Bigelow Aerospace. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2012 Anatoly Zak