Beam me up — NASA experiments with inflatable modules

Over the weekend, astronauts aboard the orbiting International Space Station added a module like none other. Think an RV that expands out the back with extra space for sleeping quarters. In the case of the ISS, it was an inflatable Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM). It’s made of a material stronger than kevlar and could be a game-changer. Science correspondent Miles O’Brien reports.

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    The first inflatable room in space was attached to the International Space Station by NASA on Saturday. It's the beginning of a two-year test period for this expandable habitat.

    Correspondent Miles O'Brien reports on this new frontier in space travel as part of our weekly series about the Leading Edge of science.


    NASA just added some space to the space station, and it is 16 cubic meters like no other. Inflated carefully with short spurts of air, it is an expandable module, the first designed for human habitation ever to reach low-Earth orbit.

    It's a big step on the long road to building spacecraft and habitats for human missions to Mars. Expandables allow engineers to color outside the lines, beyond the diameter of the nose cone of the rocket called the fairing. That's the constraint when launching a module made of rigid aluminum. It's sort of like carrying a tent to space.

    Jason Crusan is NASA's director for advanced exploration systems.


    Expandables allow you to pack up whatever your habitat is and fit in more potential volume in the same fairing volume. So that's the key advantage, is the volume advantage.


    It's called BEAM, an acronym for Bigelow Expandable Activity Module. It's a technology demonstrator, an experiment to see how well it performs in space.

    The man behind BEAM, Robert Bigelow, watched it all unfold in the viewing room overlooking the space station flight control room in Houston. His company, Bigelow Aerospace, is based in North Las Vegas.

    All right, so what are we looking at here?

    Bigelow made his fortune in real estate, contracting and extended stay hotels. He is now pursuing a lifelong passion for space. He believes expandables are a game-changer.

  • ROBERT BIGELOW, Bigelow Aerospace:

    It's that dramatic. It's that huge in terms of concept change. We didn't invent the change. This is a NASA idea.


    It is an idea as old as the space age itself. In a seminal series on space exploration in "Collier's" magazine in 1954, legendary rocket scientist Wernher von Braun envisioned humans flying to, and living on, Mars in inflatables.

    The first communications satellites, Echo 1 and Echo 2, launched in 1960 and '64 respectively, were inflatable metallic balloons, passive reflectors of microwave transmissions. At about the same time, NASA pondered several early space station designs with expandable modules. And in the 1990s, when the International Space Station was becoming a reality, the agency designed an expandable called TransHab that would have replaced the U.S. crew quarters.

    Expanded, it would have twice the diameter, and three times the volume, of the rigid aluminum structure currently in use. But amid cost overruns, Congress canceled TransHab. And Bigelow Aerospace obtained the patents from NASA.


    When I saw that architecture and that whole idea, I was enchanted by that concept, and I thought, that's something that really looks cool and seems to have a lot of value.


    In 2006 and 2007, Bigelow successfully deployed two expandable structures slightly smaller than BEAM in low-Earth orbit. Both are still in space, and still filled with air.


    There are a lot of fans of this kind of architecture. So, I think they're applicable anywhere in low-Earth orbit and on the surface of another body, whether it's the moon or perhaps even Mars, and certainly for any kind of deep space mission.

    You want to have a lot of room for people. People need to have a lot of space. They don't want to be cramped up for long periods of time.


    Bigelow took me on a tour of his huge, pristine facility filled with full-sized mockups of his expansive vision for space.

    Welcome to Olympus?


    Yes. Yes.


    A lot of volume here.


    Yes, this could be anything that you could imagine.


    Olympus would have twice the volume of the entire International Space Station, and yet could be delivered to orbit in one launch, albeit on a super heavy rocket still on the drawing boards at NASA or SpaceX.

    Still, Bigelow has some big ideas for this very big space.


    So is it an entertainment center? Is it a command-and-control center? Is it a hospital? Are you growing food? Is it a hydroponic center? Is it a dormitory? Are you making — is it a manufacturing facility, you're making all kinds of things, or is it an assembly facility, where you are assembling satellites and launching them out the airlock?


    But before Olympus becomes a reality, Bigelow would like to attach a module like this one to the International Space Station. He'd also like to build his own space station, which could orbit the Earth, moon or Mars.

    He envisions his expandables as orbiting time-shares that can be used for manufacturing and science and as a destination for emerging nations hoping to fly their own astronauts. Oh, and don't forget tourism. He is, after all, a hotel guy.


    So, if somebody wants to use it for a hotel purpose, that's fine. We will lease that to them, and then they can sublet and sub-rent that out to whomever.


    BEAM and all the rest of Bigelow's expandables are made of several layers of Vectran, a material stronger than Kevlar, which is used in bulletproof vests. Over the next six months, astronauts will only venture into BEAM periodically to glean data on the air quality, temperature, condensation, radiation and possible micro-meteoroid and orbital debris impacts.


    But, to be honest, actually, just the whole process of developing and expansion are even more critical to using this in the first place.


    BEAM will remain on the International Space Station for two years. Bigelow is seeking permission from NASA to sell access to the craft to commercial, educational and scientific customers.


    Some people may think, well, that's not any big deal. Well, it is. It is the start of something.

    McDonald's started with one burger somewhere, right, someplace. OK? So, it all has to have a beginning. And this is what BEAM is for us, is it's a beginning, even if it's on a very small scale.


    Bigelow clearly believes the work in low-Earth orbit is just the beginning of creating a viable industry in space, which, in turn, could help NASA's goal to land and sustain humans on Mars. The universe is ever expanding, and so will the spacecraft designed to explore it.

    Miles O'Brien, the "PBS NewsHour," North Las Vegas, Nevada.

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