The ISS’s newest module, the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), a prototype of what Bigelow Aerospace plans to use to construct the first private habitable space station, has hit its first snag. This isn’t particularly surprising — it is a test program, after all, and this is exactly why you do tests — but it is somewhat disappointing. After pyrotechnics were fired to unfasten the three straps holding it in the stowed position, air was pumped into the module. The pressure increased, indicating that it was holding air, but it only expanded a few inches. Something is still holding it up, and it’s not yet clear what. What could’ve happened? Well, my own speculation runs to things like:
- straps not fully separated
- folds of material adhering in the vacuum of space
- folds of material become stiffer in the cold of space
- an internal obstruction
NASA will make another attempt tomorrow (Saturday).
Bigelow Aerospace has launched two inflatable modules before: the unmanned, small-scale Genesis 1 and Genesis 2. Those inflated successfully with little difficulty. However, I believe they inflated shortly after launch. Due to the busy workload around Dragon’s arrival, there was no time to inflate it after installation; it had to wait a month in orbit. It’s possible this impacted the flexibility of the material or something like that. But that is precisely why this sort of a prototype is important. There’s only so much you can predict on the ground.
So, cross your fingers for take two!