A BEAMing Opportunity: Next SpaceX Flight Offers Promise of an “Expanding” Future in Space

BEAM Being Loaded Into the Dragon's Trunk Credit: SpaceX

BEAM Being Loaded Into the Dragon’s Trunk
Credit: SpaceX


Next Friday, April 8th, SpaceX is scheduled to launch a Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station. As the company’s first commercial cargo flight to ISS since disaster struck the CRS-7 mission on June 28th, 2015, it was already due to attract a great deal of attention. But given what will be riding to orbit in the Dragon’s trunk this time, it will be all that much more signifcant.

Already stowed in the open ended-trunk is a one of the most promising pieces of hardware yet to fly to ISS, and it is one which could reshape, literally, our perception of what space ships, and space stations should look like in the future. That hardware is Bigelow Aerospace’s Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM. Comprised of what the company cryptically calls a proprietary “Vectran-like” material covered by a Micrometeoroid and Orbital Debris (MMOD) blanket, BEAM will serve as a crew tended orbital test bed for an inflatable space station architecture which stretches back to NASA’s cancelled Transhab project and forward to Bigelow’s proposed BA-330 independent space station.

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BEAM will actually be the third inflatable structure to be deployed in low Earth orbit by the company as part of a long term plan which hopes to see far larger and more complex expandable structures located both in orbit as well as on the surfaces of the Moon and Mars. The first two, Genesis I & II were launched to LEO aboard Russian Dneper rockets in 2006 and 2007 respectively, and continue to circle the planet intact to this day, although as the company revealed in NASA teleconference yesterday, they have since quit transmitting.

Based on the undeniable structural success of the two Genesis modules, Bigelow has a great deal of confidence in its technological readiness level, or TRL. Now it is ready to put it to the test under NASA’s more stringent crew rating standards in the hopes of demonstrating to the space agency that expandable space habitats can be a critical link in the rockets its is building, and the places it want to go. One key component of fulfilling that plan is demonstrating just as SpaceX and Orbital ATK have done with cargo resupply, that public / private partnerships can extend to crew habitats as well.

During the course of its minimum two year stay aboard the Station (it is rated for five years) BEAM will employ a series of sensors to record both its initial structural response to deployment as well ongoing radiation, temperature and micrometeoroid  impact readings. In the case of the later three, it is beings treated little differently from the Station’s existing, metallic modules, which are equipped with similar instruments. Although its hatch will remain closed except for periodic visits by the station’s crew, BEAM will be a breathing part of ISS, connected by airflow ducts.

Crew presence, expected to consist of 2-3 stays conducted roughly every six months, will be limited due to the pressure of time constraints rather than any concern over the module’s integrity, with NASA stating that there are no technical or safety reasons to prevent more frequent visits.

Somewhat surprisingly, there are no plans to deploy a permanent camera inside BEAM as Bigelow did with its Genesis II module, but that could change. As a NASA representative indicated during the teleconference, BEAM’s two year visit could be expanded to last longer, with the need for access to the Node 2 Nadir location for other uses being the determining factor.


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1 Comment on "A BEAMing Opportunity: Next SpaceX Flight Offers Promise of an “Expanding” Future in Space"

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  1. PK Sink says:

    I look forward to getting the crew members’ opinions as they become more familiar with BEAM.

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