SpaceX to Launch Expandable Habitat BEAM to Space Station

Bigelow Aerospace's expandable habitat module, BEAM, is hitching a ride in the trunk of SpaceX’s Dragon capsule during next week’s launch to the International Space Station (ISS). The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), which has awaited liftoff in its compacted flight-ready configuration for the past year, will be unpacked mid-April using the ISS’s robotic arm, and attached to the Tranquility node’s aft port. Finally, sometime during late spring, the activation of BEAM’s deployment sequence will expand the module to a length of 3.7 meters and a diameter of 3.2 meters — nearly two times its compacted size. 

 Animation of the station's Canadarm2 unpacking BEAM from Dragon's trunk, docking it to Tranquility's aft port, and module expansion. Video credit: NASA

Animation of the station's Canadarm2 unpacking BEAM from Dragon's trunk, docking it to Tranquility's aft port, and module expansion. Video credit: NASA

Expandable habitats have the potential to greatly reduce the mass, and consequently the cost of launching spacecraft into orbit. During BEAM’s two-year stay docked to the ISS, Bigelow Aerospace hopes to demonstrate the long-term viability of their expandable habitat technology. Tests will determine the capsule’s resilience to thermal, structural, and mechanical stresses. Expedition 47 and 48 crew members aboard the station will routinely monitor BEAM for pressure and temperature irregularities, and radiation exposure. These observations are only scheduled to occur about four times a year; however, BEAM’s sound-absorbing fabric interior might have station inhabitants hiding out in there for some peace and quiet.

The walls of other ISS modules are aluminum. They are thick, heavy, shielded, and packed with equipment. Storage, ventilation, plumbing, computers, coolant fans, and a dozen other things packed in the walls of the station produce the constant ambience of what it takes to live in space. This module, however, is different. BEAM is compacted the same way a rag-top convertible car puts its roof down — okay, not exactly the same way. Bigelow Aerospace isn’t just tossing a canvas balloon into SpaceX’s trunk, but the capsule is essentially wrapped in cloth.

Bigelow Aerospace has designed the layers of BEAM with future space-travel in mind.

"Clamshell" view of BEAM. Image curtesy of Bigelow Aerospace

The company's proprietary fabric drapes the module’s skeletal structure to create a barrier from the vacuum of space. The module’s exterior consists of a reflective thermal shielding covering a combination of insulation and micro-meteoroid/debris protection sheets. And, in the unlikely event of a micro-meteoroid penetration, the BEAM is designed to deflate slowly rather than burst into explosive decompression. The interior of BEAM’s walls include support restraints that allow the module to maintain rigidity, and an air bladder that helps protect against radiation. In fact, the primary mission for BEAM is the successful demonstration of the module’s protective shell.

The concept of expandable space modules isn't new. NASA’s first communications satellites, Echo 1 and Echo 2, were essentially enormous balloons inflated in space. NASA studied the possibility of inflatable structures as early as 1960.  Technological advancements of the 1960s, or lack thereof, hindered much of their development, and the inflatable concept was put on hold until 1997 - a year before the ISS’s first component was launched - when the idea for TransHab came out of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. 

An expandable habitat designed similarly to the BEAM, though a bit more rudimentary, TransHab’s shell was nearly a foot thick and featured alternating layers of Kevlar, polyurethane foam, and ceramic fabric. Unfortunately, by 1999 it was clear the cost to construct and maintain the ISS would be massively over-budget, and related controversies that arose during TransHab’s development caused skepticism of the program. TransHab was NASA’s answer to high-mass, high-cost space habitation, but was ultimately canceled before passing the design phase.

Today the International Space Station consists of mostly modules lifted to space atop Russian rockets or in the cargo holds of space shuttles.

Harmony module sits in the cargo bay of Space Shuttle Discovery during STS-120. Photo credit: NASA

For comparison, Space Shuttle Discovery delivered the Harmony module to the station on STS-120 in October, 2007. At launch, Harmony measured 7.19 meters in length, 4.42 meters in height, and weighed 14,288 kilograms. BEAM will be one-third of that size at launch; and while it only expands to about half the size of the Harmony module, BEAM only weighs 1,400 kilograms — a tenth of Harmony’s mass.

At the time of STS-120, the cost to send a payload into space was about $18,000 per kilogram. Today it costs about $22,000 per kilogram, and NASA wants to reduce that cost tremendously. In a time when rockets are becoming more efficient and cost-effective, NASA hopes to reduce the price of getting to space to a mere hundreds of dollars per kilogram within the next 25 years.

Enter Bigelow Aerospace.

Founded in 1999, the same year the National Space Society issued a policy statement recommending NASA discontinue development of the TransHap module, Bigelow Aerospace had a grand vision for space exploration and tourism. Well in advance of the vehicles that will one day ferry any patrons, Bigelow Aerospace began designing space hotels at the company’s 350,000 sq. ft. headquarters in northern Las Vegas. Sitting on 50 acres, the nerve center of Bigelow Aerospace serves as their primary manufacturing and testing facility, and is home to its own mission control room.

 Bigelow Aerospace headquarters in Las Vegas, NV. Photo Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Bigelow Aerospace headquarters in Las Vegas, NV. Photo Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

With a ground station for communicating with spacecraft on their Las Vegas site, and three more in Alaska, Hawaii, and Maine, Bigelow Aerospace began redeveloping and improving upon much of the TransHab designs. Their proof-of-concept models, Genesis I and Genesis II, launched into orbit in 2006 and 2007, respectively. The Genesis modules served as the first expandable space habitat, and one of the lowest-cost spacecraft construction and launches in history.

"Clamshell" view of B330 concept. Click to enlarge. Image curtesy of Bigelow Aerospace

Still in orbit today, Genesis I and Genesis II paved the way for NASA’s contract with Bigelow Aerospace to produce BEAM. And while NASA is measuring BEAM’s viability for long-term missions to the moon and Mars, Bigelow Aerospace sees potential for stand-alone space stations for use in the private sector. The aerospace company is already marketing designs of their modular B330 concept; a 330 cubic meter interior habitat 33% bigger than the ISS’s Destiny laboratory. In a separate contract with NASA, Bigelow Aerospace has already begun work designing the B330 for compatibility with NASA’s Orion spacecraft and long-term Journey to Mars mission goals. 

B330 modular station concept. Image curtesy of Bigelow Aerospace

Expandable habitat technology faces a critical trial over the next two years. Ideal for deep-space missions, the additional room provided by cost-effective, expandable modules like the BEAM or B330 grants the necessary space for supplies while maintaining spacious living environments for its crew. Whether these modules will ultimately serve as humanity’s habitat along the Journey to Mars and deep space is yet to be seen, but the possibility of space hotels for the masses seems to be inching closer everyday.


SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket is scheduled to launch its Dragon supply capsule carrying BEAM at 4:43pm ET, Friday, April 8.

Watch the launch live on NASA TV, and follow @theOrbitalSpace on social media for up close, behind-the-scenes content.