Click the arrow to watch a NASA animation of the BEAM deployment. Video source: NASA Johnson YouTube channel.
Sixteen years after Congress killed NASA's TransHab program, and fifteen years after Bob Bigelow licensed the technology from NASA, we are about to see deployed the prototype of what may become humanity's forts in space.
The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) is now in the unpressurized trunk of the SpaceX Dragon. The mission, called SpaceX-8, is scheduled to deliver its payload to the International Space Station as early as April 8.
TransHab technology goes back to a NASA program in the late 1990s that would have been a potential crew quarters aboard the ISS, then about to begin construction. Congress, in its infinite wisdom, forbade NASA in 2000 from doing any more work on TransHab. To quote from the conference report of the NASA Authorization Act of 2000:
Prohibits the obligation of any funds authorized by this Act for the definition, design, procurement, or development of an inflatable space structure to replace any International Space Station components scheduled for launch in the Assembly Sequence adopted by NASA in June 1999. Provides that nothing shall preclude NASA from leasing or otherwise using a commercially provided inflatable habitation module if such module would: (1) cost the same or less than the remaining cost of completing and attaching the baseline habitation module; (2) impose no delays to the Assembly Sequence; and (3) result in no increased safety risk.
A cutaway concept of a TransHab module. Original source: NASA.
This was when Bob Bigelow came to the rescue. According to TransHab developer William Schneider:
Robert Bigelow read about the TransHab in the May 1999 issue of “Air & Space” magazine, I believe, and saw that it was cancelled. He contacted NASA and eventually me and asked if I would consult with him, and his newly formed Bigelow Aerospace company, in the development of this inflatable module.
In 2006 and 2007, Bigelow Aerospace deployed two expandable modules, the Genesis I and Genesis II, which were proofs-of-concept. When expanded, they had a length of 4.4 meters, a diameter of 2.5 meters, and a habitable volume of 11.5 cubic meters.
The BEAM, when expanded, will have a length of 4.0 meters, a diameter of 3.2 meters, and a volume of 16 cubic meters.
NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver, a big proponent of the “NewSpace” movement, toured the Bigelow Aerospace facility in February 2011. Two years later, in January 2013, NASA signed a $17.8 million deal to acquire a BEAM prototype to test at the ISS. Garver represented the agency at the event. Later that year, in August, she announced her departure from NASA, but the Bigelow deal was in place.
January 16, 2013 ... KLAS-TV Channel 8 in Las Vegas reports on the BEAM deal. Video source: SpheroPhoto YouTube channel.
In the three years since that transaction, Bigelow has signed more deals with NASA.
In April 2013, NASA and Bigelow Aerospace signed an agreement that let Bigelow explore the possibility of commercial ventures beyond Earth orbit. A little more than a month later, during a joint teleconference, Bigelow delivered the first draft to NASA Associate Administrator William Gerstenmaier.
The May 23, 2013 NASA/Bigelow teleconference. (Audio only.)
In July 2015, Bigelow Aerospace announced a deal “to develop ambitious human spaceflight missions that leverage its innovative B330 space habitat.” The B330 will be the first operational version of the company's expandable technology.
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.
The Bigelow technology, in my opinion, provides humanity with a potential practical technology for human expansion across the solar system.
I think of how settlers expanded across the American West in the 19th Century. (Overlooking for the moment the slaughter of native American tribes ...) Because large population centers did not exist, travellers typically went from fort to fort. Several cities grew up around those forts, such as Fort Lauderdale in Florida, Fort Stockton in California, Fort Worth in Texas and Fort Wayne in Indiana.
The forts typically were built at locations that were logical transportation hubs. The original Fort Launderdale was built on the New River to protect white settlers from Seminole attacks. (Okay, I guess we can't overlook the native American tribes ...) Fort Wayne began as a trading post for pioneers at the confluence of three rivers; early French settlers established a fort in the area in 1697.
Human expansion into the solar system won't require the displacement of any indigenous people, thank goodness, but it's logical that a modern system of “forts” will be necessary for humans to travel the vast distances between worlds and natural resources such as asteroids.
A Bigelow Aerospace model depicting a hypothetical Mars outpost based on its habitat technology. Image source: NASASpaceflight.com.
Mr. Bigelow has outlined a vision that begins with B330s in low Earth orbit functioning as commercial space stations, which will also help mature the technology.
The habitats could be deployed in lunar orbit as a way station for voyagers to land on the Moon and then dock upon return. Habitats buried in the lunar regolith could be used as a permanent settlement. The same scheme could be used for Mars exploration.
Early forts were often built along rivers, because rivers were the path of transportation for water-fairing vessels. The “rivers” in space are the paths between Lagrangian points. As defined by the European Space Agency, these are locations “where the gravitational forces and the orbital motion of the spacecraft, Sun and planet interact to create a stable location from which to make observations.” These points are named after the 18th century Italian astronomer and mathematician Joseph-Louis Lagrange (born Giuseppe Luigi Lagrancia).
An illustration of the NASA ARTEMIS spacecrafts that orbited at Earth-Moon Lagrangian points. Image source: NASA.
Lagrangian points would be a logical location for mining companies to park captured asteroids for harvesting. One could imagine a miner sitting in an expandable habitat using virtual reality goggles to operate robotic harvesters upon a nearby captured asteroid.
But all of this is theoretical until the technology is proven.
That proof begins with SpaceX-8.
The BEAM is integrated into the trunk of the SpaceX-8 Dragon. Image source: NASA.
NASA's BEAM project manager Rajib Dasgupta discusses the technology on the March 29, 2016 edition of Space Station Live. Video source: NASA Johnson YouTube channel.
A one-minute summary of BEAM released April 6, 2016. Video source: NASA Johnson YouTube channel.
KLAS-TV Channel 8 in Las Vegas reported April 6, 2016 on BEAM. Video source: 8 News NOW Las Vegas YouTube channel.