BEAM inflation put on hold

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!

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2 Comments

Filed under Space

2 responses to “BEAM inflation put on hold

  1. Steve Densmore

    If you follow Andy Weir on FB, you’ll know by now they successfully inflated the BEAM. Blowing up balloons in space is nothing new if you’re as old as I am and can remember ECHO 1.

    • That’s great to hear! I’ll be honest: I queued this post up Friday night because I was going to be without Internet for the weekend. 😉 I just got back from a weekend visiting family in rural South Dakota. It was fantastic! But now I have Internet catching-up to do.

      I am younger than ECHO 1, but I am familiar with it. I know this isn’t the first thing to be inflated in space (heck, it follows two previous subscale test articles by Bigelow Aerospace as well), but it is definitely more complex than ECHO 1. It has to retain a lot more pressure, for one thing, and it has to survive on orbit for a lot longer.

      For younger readers, ECHO 1 was the first communications satellite. It was a passive reflector — its huge inflated bulk, covered in reflective Mylar, was used to reflect radio signals around the limb of the Earth.

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