Monday, August 10, 2015

The Next Step for Bigelow

An artist's concept of two Bigelow B330 habitats in orbit around the Moon. Image source: Bigelow Aerospace.

Bigelow Aerospace issued an announcement July 31 that it had contracted with NASA “to develop ambitious human spaceflight missions that leverage its innovative B330 space habitat.”

NASA has executed a contract with Bigelow Aerospace for the company to develop ambitious human spaceflight missions that leverage its innovative B330 space habitat. The contract was executed under the Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (“NextSTEP”) Broad Agency Announcement issued by NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems program.

Via its NextSTEP contract, Bigelow Aerospace will demonstrate to NASA how B330 habitats can be used to support safe, affordable, and robust human spaceflight missions to the Moon, Mars, and beyond. As the name indicates, the B330 will provide 330 cubic meters of internal volume and each habitat can support a crew of up to six. Bigelow expandable habitats provide much greater volume than metallic structures, as well as enhanced protection against radiation and physical debris. Moreover, Bigelow habitats are lighter and take up substantially less rocket fairing space, and are far more affordable than traditional, rigid modules. These advantages make the B330 the ideal habitat to implement NASA’s beyond low Earth orbit (“LEO”) plans and will support the utilization of transportation systems such as the SLS and Orion. Additionally, the B330s, which will initially be deployed and tested in LEO, will be used as private sector space stations that will conduct a wide variety of commercial activities.

“We’re eager to work with NASA to show how B330s can support historic human spaceflight missions to the Moon and other destinations in cislunar space while still staying within the bounds of the Agency’s existing budget,” said Bigelow Aerospace’s President and founder, Robert T. Bigelow. “NASA originally conceived of expandable habitats decades ago to perform beyond LEO missions, and we at Bigelow Aerospace look forward to finally bringing that vision to fruition.”

NASA issued the NextSTEP request for proposals in October 2014. According to that press release:

NASA intends to engage partners to help develop and build a set of sustainable, evolvable, multi-use space capabilities that will enable human pioneers to go to deep space destinations. Developing capabilities in three key areas — advanced propulsion, habitation, and small satellites deployed from the Space Launch System — is critical to enabling the next step for human spaceflight. This work will use the proving ground of space around the moon to develop technologies and advance knowledge to expand human exploration into the solar system.

In May 2015, NASA announced it had selected twelve companies for NextSTEP partnerships. Five of the companies were selected to develop habitat projects.

Habitation is another major requirement necessary for human exploration to deeper destinations in space. The Orion capsule is the first component of human exploration beyond low Earth orbit and will have a capability of sustaining a crew of 4 for 21 days in deep space and returning them safely to Earth. After Orion, the next step for human spaceflight is the development of capabilities to connect to the Orion capsule and to initially sustain a crew of four for up to 60 days in cis-lunar space. These initial capabilities will be accomplished with the development of an Exploration Augmentation Module (EAM). The module will serve as a foundational component of a future in-space habitation capability and may include multiple elements as the architecture is further refined. NextSTEP partners will provide concept studies, technology investigation and concepts of operations to help define the architecture or subsystems of an EAM design or capabilities in the areas of habitation or operations and environment.

A Bigelow BEAM mockup. Image source: NASA TechPort.

Inside the Bigelow BEAM. Image source: NASA TechPort.

The next SpaceX cargo Dragon delivery to the International Space Station will deliver a prototype habitat called the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM). A NASA TechPort data sheet for the BEAM Project lists eleven critical technology objectives for BEAM:

  1. Launch of a packed inflatable structure in a Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) launch vehicle
  2. Safe deployment (inflation) on ISS
  3. Passive air exchange with ISS and an environment inside the BEAM supporting periodic, temporary ingress by the ISS crew
  4. Measure deployment loads during inflation of the BEAM on ISS
  5. Determine radiation protection capability of an inflatable structure in low Earth orbit and demonstrate the performance of advanced active radiation sensors on ISS
  6. Long-term structural performance of inflatable shell after exposure to atomic oxygen, vacuum, radiation and thermal cycling
  7. Demonstrate performance of structural health monitoring systems
  8. Measure long-term leak performance of inflatable bladder and bladder joints after launch and deployment cycle
  9. Develop structural and mechanical system requirements for a human-rated inflatable module in external orbital environment and successfully verify those requirements
  10. Develop crew restraints and mobility aids for Intravehicular Activity (IVA) inside an inflatable module
  11. Develop and implement "housekeeping" procedures for internal surfaces of an inflatable module

The report states, “BEAM will demonstrate jettisoning of a large inflatable structure from ISS at end of mission or during a contingency depressurization. Typically, ISS payloads are disposed with the returning cargo vehicle at the end of the payload mission. BEAM will provide the first demonstration of robotic jettison of a large 3K lbs (1380 kg) structure from ISS.”

Click the arrow to watch a Bigelow Aerospace promotional film. Video source: Bigelow Aerospace YouTube channel.

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