Space Station Gets Experimental New Room with Installation of BEAM Expandable Habitat

Robotic arm attaches BEAM inflatable habitat module to International Space Station on April 16, 2016. Credit: NASA/Tim Kopra

The International Space Station (ISS) grew in size today, April 16, following the successful installation of an experimental new room – the BEAM expandable habitat module.

Engineers at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston used the space station’s high tech robotic arm to pluck the small module known as the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) out from the unpressurized rear truck section of the recently arrived SpaceX Dragon cargo freighter, and added it onto the orbiting laboratory complex.

BEAM was manufactured by Las Vegas-based Bigelow Aerospace under a $17.8 million contract with NASA. It will remain joined to the station for at least a two-year test period.

The 3115 pound (1413 kg) BEAM will test the use of an expandable space habitat in microgravity with humans for the first time.

It was extracted from the Dragon’s trunk overnight with the robotic Canadarm2 and then installed on a side port of the Tranquility module at 5:36 a.m. EDT over a period of about 4 hours. The station was flying over the Southern Pacific Ocean at the moment of berthing early Saturday.

NASA astronaut and ISS Expedition 47 crew member Tim Kopra snapped a super cool photo of BEAM in transit, shown above.

BEAM was carried to orbit in a compressed form inside the Dragon’s truck following the April 8 blast off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 4:43 p.m. EDT on the Dragon CRS-8 resupply mission for NASA to the ISS.

BEAM is a prototype inflatable habitat that could revolutionize the method of construction of future habitable modules intended for use both in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) as well as for deep space expeditions Beyond Earth Orbit (BEO) to destinations including the Moon, Asteroids and Mars.

The advantage of expandable habitats is that they offer a much better volume to weight ratio compared to standard rigid metallic structures such as all of the current ISS pressurized modules.

It is constructed of lighter weight reinforced fabric rather that metal. This counts as the first test of an expandable module and investigators want to determine how it fares with respect to protection again solar radiation, space debris and the temperature extremes of space.

Furthermore they also take up much less space inside the payload fairing of a rocket during launch.

Watch this animation showing how Canadarm2 transports BEAM from the Dragon spacecraft to a side berthing port on Tranquility where it will soon be expanded.

Current plans call for the module to be expanded in late May with air. It will expand to nearly five times from its compressed size of 8 feet in diameter by 7 feet in length to roughly 10 feet in diameter and 13 feet in length.

Exactly how it will expand is also an experiment and could happen in multiple ways. Therefore the team will exercise great caution and carefully monitor the inflation and check for leaks.

The astronauts will first enter BEAM about a week after the expansion. Thereafter they will visit it about 2 or 3 times per year for several hours to retrieve sensor data and assess conditions, say NASA officials.

Visits could perhaps occur even frequently more if NASA approves. says Bigelow CEO Robert Bigelow.

BEAM is an extraordinary test bed in itself.

But Robert Bigelow hopes that BEAM can be used to conduct science experiments after maybe a six month shakedown cruise, if all goes well, and NASA approves a wider usage.

Bigelow Aerospace has already taken in the next step in expandable habitats.

Earlier this week, Bigelow and rocket builder United Launch Alliance (ULA) announced they are joining forces to develop and launch the B330 expandable commercial habitat module in 2020 on an Atlas V. It is far greater in size and far more capable. Details in my story here.

Robert Bigelow says he hopes that NASA will approve docking of the B330 at the ISS.

The SpaceX Dragon spacecraft delivered almost 7,000 pounds of cargo.

CRS-8 counts as the company’s eighth flight to deliver supplies, science experiments and technology demonstrations to the ISS for the crews of Expeditions 47 and 48 to support dozens of the approximately 250 science and research investigations in progress.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer


Learn more about SpaceX, NASA Mars rovers, Orion, SLS, ISS, Orbital ATK, ULA, Boeing, Space Taxis, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

Apr 17: “NASA and the Road to Mars Human Spaceflight programs”- 1:30 PM at Washington Crossing State Park, Nature Center, Titusville, NJ –

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Bigelow and ULA Partner to Launch Commercial Space Habitat in 2020

Interior schematic view of Bigelow Aerospace B330 expandable module. Credit: Bigelow Aerospace

Bigelow Aerospace and United Launch Alliance (ULA) announced they are joining forces to develop and launch the world’s first commercial space habitat to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) by 2020 – potentially as a huge addition to the International Space Station (ISS).

The expandable habitat will be based on the Bigelow Aerospace B330 module and would be carried to orbit on the most powerful version of ULA’s venerable Atlas V rocket.

Robert Bigelow, founder and president of Bigelow Aerospace, and Tory Bruno, ULA president and CEO announced the partnership on the fully commercial space habitat during a joint media briefing held at the 32nd Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colorado on April 11.

“We could not be more pleased than to partner with Bigelow Aerospace and reserve a launch slot on our manifest for this revolutionary mission,” said Tory Bruno, ULA president and CEO.

The B330 boasts an interior volume of 330 cubic meters (12,000 cu ft). If NASA agrees to attach the B330 to the ISS, the stations habitable volume would grow by a whopping 30% in one giant step.

The station based B330 concept is named XBASE or Expandable Bigelow Advanced Station Enhancement.

The additional volume would enable a significant increase in the orbiting outposts ability to support research and development operations and manufacturing processes for NASA and commercial users.

Bigelow further views the B330 and follow on modules as a potential destination for space tourism and a beneficial component for human missions to the Moon and Mars.

“We are exploring options for the location of the initial B330 including discussions with NASA on the possibility of attaching it to the International Space Station (ISS),” said Robert Bigelow, founder and president of Bigelow Aerospace.

“In that configuration, the B330 will enlarge the station’s volume by 30% and function as a multipurpose testbed in support of NASA’s exploration goals as well as provide significant commercial opportunities. The working name for this module is XBASE or Expandable Bigelow Advanced Station Enhancement.”

The BA 330 would be tucked inside the cavernous payload fairing of the Atlas V which would launch in the 552 configuration with 5 meter diameter fairing with 5 solid rocket booster attached to the first stage and a two engine Centaur second stage.

“When looking for a vehicle to launch our large, unique spacecraft, ULA provides a heritage of solid mission success, schedule certainty and a cost effective solution,” says Bigelow.

The SpaceX falcon 9 fairing is not big enough to house the B330.

“SpaceX, they do not have the capability with the fairing size that is necessary to accommodate the B330. So that is not even a choice,” Bigelow stated.

The B330 partnership announcement follows hot on the heels of last weeks successful launch of Bigelow’s experimental BEAM expandable module on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on a mission to the ISS on April 8.

BEAM is tucked inside the rear truck section of the SpaceX Dragon now berthed at the station. It will soon be attached to a side port on the Harmony module.

“This innovative and game-changing advance will dramatically increase opportunities for space research in fields like materials, medicine and biology,” said Bruno.

“It enables destinations in space for countries, corporations and even individuals far beyond what is available today, effectively democratizing space. We can’t begin to imagine the future potential of affordable real estate in space.”

The B330 could also function as a free flyer but would work best at the station, Bigelow noted at the briefing.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer


Learn more about SpaceX, ULA, commercial space, NASA Mars rovers, Orion, SLS, ISS, Orbital ATK, Boeing, Space Taxis, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

Apr 17: “NASA and the Road to Mars Human Spaceflight programs”- 1:30 PM at Washington Crossing State Park, Nature Center, Titusville, NJ –

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Moonbase by 2022 For $10 Billion, Says NASA

Based on a series of articles that were recently made available to the public, NASA predicts it could build a base on the Moon by 2022, and for cheaper than expected. Credit: NASA

Returning to the Moon has been the fevered dream of many scientists and astronauts. Ever since the Apollo Program culminated with the first astronauts setting foot on the Moon on July 20th, 1969, we have been looking for ways to go back to the Moon… and to stay there. In that time, multiple proposals have been drafted and considered. But in every case, these plans failed, despite the brave words and bold pledges made.

However, in a workshop that took place in August of 2014, representatives from NASA met with Harvard geneticist George Church, Peter Diamandis from the X Prize Foundation and other parties invested in space exploration to discuss low-cost options for returning to the Moon. The papers, which were recently made available in a special issue of New Space, describe how a settlement could be built on the Moon by 2022, and for the comparatively low cost of $10 billion.

Put simply, there are many benefits to establishing a base on the Moon. In addition to providing refueling stations that would shave billions off of future space missions – especially to Mars, which are planned for the 2030s – they would provide unique opportunities for scientific research and the testing of new technologies. But plans to build one have consistently been hampered by two key assumptions.

The first is that funding is the largest hurdle to overcome, which is understandable given the past 50 years of space mission costs. To put it in perspective, the Apollo Program would cost taxpayers approximately $150 billion in today’s dollars. Meanwhile, NASA’s annual budget for 2015 was approximately $18 billion, while its 2016 is projected to reach $19.3 billion. In the days when space exploration is not a matter of national security, money is sure to be more scarce.

The second assumption is that a presidential mandate to “return to the Moon to stay” is all that is needed overcome this problem and make the necessary budgets available. But despite repeated attempts, no mandate for renewed lunar or space exploration has resolved the issue. In short, space exploration is hampered by conventional thinking that assumes massive budgets are needed and that administrations simply need to make them available.

In truth, a number of advances that have been made in recent years are allowing for missions that would cost significantly less. This, and how a lunar base could be a benefit to space exploration and humanity, were the topics of discussion at the 2014 workshop. As NASA astrobiologist Chris McKay – who edited the New Space journal series – told Universe Today via email, one of the key benefits of a cost-effective base on the Moon is that it will bring other missions into the realm of affordability.

“I am interested in a long term research base on Mars – not just a short term human landing,” he said. “Establishing a research base on the Moon shows that we know how to do that and can do it in a sustainable way. We have to get away from the current situation where costs are so high that a base on the Moon, a human mission to Mars, and a human mission to an asteroid are all mutually exclusive. If we can drive the costs down by 10x or more then we can do them all.”

Central to this are several key changes that have taken place over the past decade. These include the development of the space launch business, which has led to an overall reduction in the cost of individual launches. The emergence of the NewSpace industry – i.e. a general term for various private commercial aerospace ventures – is another, which has been taking recent advances in technology and finding applications for them in space.

According to McKay, these and other technological developments will help resolve the budget issue. “Beyond the launch costs, they key to driving down the costs for a base on the Moon is to make use of technologies for sustainability being developed on Earth. My favorite examples are 3D printing, electric-cars, autonomous robots, and recycling toilets (like the blue diversion toilet).”

Alexandra Hall, the former Senior Director of the X Prize Foundation and one of the series’ main authors, also expressed the importance of emerging technologies in making this lunar base functional. As she told Universe Today via email, these will have significant benefits here on Earth, especially in the coming decades where rises in population will coincide with diminishing resources.

“The advances in life support and closed loop living necessary for sustaining life for long periods on the Moon will undoubtedly provide positive spin offs that benefit both the environment and our ability to live with changing climate and diminishing resources,” she said. “If we can figure out how to build structures with what’s already on the Moon, we can use that technology to help us create infrastructure and shelter solutions out of in-situ materials on Earth. If we can use rock that’s right there, perhaps we can avoid shipping asphalt and bricks across the world!”

Another important aspect of making a lunar base cost-effective was the potential for international partnerships, as well as those between the private and public sectors. As Hall explained it:

“While there will be commercial markets for the eventual fruits of our lunar exploration endeavors, the initial markets are likely to be dominated by governments. The private sector is best able to respond in ways that provide cost effective and competitive solutions when governments specify and commit to long term exploration goals. I believe that a Google Lunar XPRIZE win will flush out other private and commercial partners for pursuing a permanent settlement on the Moon, that could eclipse the need for significant government participation. Once a small company demonstrates that it is actually possible to get to the Moon and be productive, that allows others to start to plan new business and endeavors.”

As for where this base will go and what it will do, that is described in the preface article, “Toward a Low-Cost Lunar Settlement“. In essence, the proposed lunar base would exist at one of the poles and would be modeled on the U.S. Antarctic Station at the South Pole. It would be operated by NASA or an international consortium and house a crew of about 10 people, a mix of staff and field scientists that would be rotated three times a year.

Activities on the base, which would be assisted by autonomous and remotely-operated robotic devices, would center on supporting field research, mainly by graduate students doing thesis work. Another key activity for the residents would be testing technologies and program precedents which could be put to use on Mars, where NASA hopes to be sending astronauts in the coming decades.

Several times over in the series, it is stressed that this can be done for the relatively low cost of $10 billion. This overall assessments is outlined in the paper titled “A Summary of the Economic Assessment and Systems Analysis of an Evolvable Lunar Architecture That Leverages Commercial Space Capabilities and Public–Private Partner“. As it concludes:

“Based on the experience of recent NASA program innovations, such as the COTS program, a human return to the Moon may not be as expensive as previously thought. The United States could lead a return of humans to the surface of the Moon within a period of 5–7 years from authority to proceed at an estimated total cost of about $10 billion (–30%) for two independent and competing commercial service providers, or about $5 billion for each provider, using partnership methods.”

Other issues discussed in the series are the location of the base and the nature of its life-support systems. In the article titled “Site Selection for Lunar Industrialization, Economic Development, and Settlement“, the case is made for a base located in either the northern or southern polar region. Written by Dennis Whigo, founder and CEO of Skycorp, the article identifies two potential sites for a lunar base, using input parameters developed in consultation with venture capitalists.

These include the issues of power availability, low-cost communications over wide areas, availability of possible water (or hydrogen-based molecules) and other resources, and surface mobility. According to these assessments, the northern polar region is a good location because of its ample access to solar power. The southern pole is also identified as a potential site (particularly in the Shackleton Crater) due to the presence of water ice.

Last, but certainly not least, the series explores the issue of economic opportunities that could have far-ranging benefits for people here on Earth. Foremost among these is the potential for creating space solar power (SSP), a concept which has been explored as a possible solution to humanity’s reliance on fossil fuels and the limits of Earth-based solar power.

Whereas Earth-based solar collectors are limited by meteorological phenomena (i.e. weather) and Earth’s diurnal cycle (night and day), solar collectors placed in orbit would be able to collect energy from the Sun around the clock. However, the issues of launch and wireless energy transmission costs make this option financially unattractive.

But as is laid out in “Lunar-Based Self-Replicating Solar Factory“, establishing a factory on the Moon could reduce costs by a factor of four. This factory could build solar power satellites out of lunar material, using a self-replicating system (SRS) able to construct replicas of itself, then deploy them into geostationary Earth orbit via a linear electromagnetic accelerator (aka. Mass Driver).

An overriding theme in the series is how a lunar base would present opportunities for cooperation, both between the private and public sectors and different nations. The ISS is repeatedly used an example, which has benefited greatly in the past decade from programs like NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) – which has been very successful at acquiring cost-effective transportation service to the station.

It is therefore understandable why NASA and those companies that have benefited from COTS want to extend this model to the Moon – in what is often referred to as Lunar Commercial Orbital Transfer Services (LCOTS) program. Aside from establishing a human presence on the Moon, this endeavor is being undertaken with the knowledge that it will also push the development of technologies and capabilities that could lead to an affordable to Mars in the coming years.

It sure is an exciting idea: returning to the Moon and laying the groundwork for a permanent human settlement there. It is also exciting when considered in the larger context of space exploration, how a base on the Moon will help us to reach further into space. To Mars, to the Asteroid Belt, perhaps to the outer Solar System and beyond.

And with each step, the opportunities for resource utilization and scientific research will expand accordingly. It may sounds like the stuff of dreams; but then again, so did the idea of putting a man on the Moon before the end of the 1960s. If there’s one thing that particular experience taught us, it’s that setting foot on another world leaves lasting footprints!

Further Reading: New Space

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Bigelow Inflatable Module to be Added to Space Station in 2015

Astronauts aboard the International Space Station are going to be getting an addition in the near future, and in the form of an inflatable room no less. The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) is the first privately-built space habitat that will added to the ISS, and it will be transported into orbit aboard a Space […]