Friday, March 13, 2015

Bigelow BEAMs Up

8 News NOW
Click the arrow to watch the report. Video source KLAS-TV Channel 8, Las Vegas.

Bigelow Aerospace has formally delivered to NASA its prototype expandable habitat, the next step towards what will be the first commercial space station sometime by the end of the decade.

According to the NASA press release:

The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM, leverages key innovations in lightweight and compact materials, departing from a traditional rigid metallic structure. In its packed configuration aboard SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft launched on a Falcon 9 rocket, the module will measure approximately 8 feet in diameter. Once attached to the space station’s Tranquility Node and after undergoing a series of hardware validations, the module will be deployed, resulting in an additional 565 cubic feet of volume — about the size of a large family camping tent — accessible by astronauts aboard the orbiting laboratory.

The Bigelow BEAM packaged for delivery to Kennedy Space Center. Image source: NASA.

NASA will own the BEAM, having paid Bigelow $18 million for the prototype. It's scheduled to launch to the International Space Station on SpaceX CRS-8 in fall 2015. After two years in service, NASA plans to return it to Earth in a SpaceX cargo Dragon so it can be inspected to determine if the prototype performed as expected.

The Bigelow expandable habitats are a descendant of NASA's TransHab concept from the 1990s.

According to a 2006 interview with TransHab developer William Schneider, the original idea behind TransHab was to be a habitat module for a Mars mission. The design could be adapted for low Earth orbit space stations.

A conceptual image of the NASA TransHab.

Congress forced NASA to cancel TransHab in the 2000 NASA Authorization Act. Section 127 stated:


(a) REPLACEMENT STRUCTURE- No funds authorized by this Act shall be obligated 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 the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in June 1999.

(b) EXCEPTION- Notwithstanding subsection (a), nothing in this Act shall preclude the National Aeronautics and Space Administration from leasing or otherwise using a commercially provided inflatable habitation module, if such module would —

     (1) cost the same or less, including any necessary modifications to other hardware or operating expenses, than the remaining cost of completing and attaching the baseline habitation module;

     (2) impose no delays to the Space Station Assembly Sequence; and

     (3) result in no increased safety risk.

(c) REPORT- Notwithstanding subsection (a), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration shall report to the Congress by April 1, 2001, on its findings and recommendations on substituting any inflatable habitation module, or other inflatable structures, for one of the elements included in the Space Station Assembly Sequence adopted in June 1999.

Bob Bigelow read about the TransHab concept and licensed the technology from NASA. Fifteen years later, NASA will be its first customer.

A mockup of the Bigelow B-330 Olympus expandable habitat. Image source: Las Vegas Review-Journal.

The BEAM is the first step towards the larger Bigelow B-330, its name referring to its habitable volume of 330 cubic meters (about 11,650 cubic feet). B-330 (earlier named Nautilus and then BA-330) would be a fully owned and operated commercial enterprise. Unlike NASA's commercial cargo and crew programs, B-330 is 100% funded by Bigelow.

A full-scale mockup of the B-330 was visible at the March 12 media event in North Las Vegas. It's also featured in the newly released IMAX-format film Journey to Space by K2 Communications. The film shows the B-330 attached to a NASA Orion capsule as part of a habitat complex for a long-duration human spaceflight to Mars — demonstrating yet again that the opposite of progress is Congress.

A cutaway illustration of a Bigelow B-330. Click the image to view at a larger size. Image source: Bigelow Aerospace.

UPDATE March 14, 2015This NBC News article by Alan Boyle updates and corrects some of what I wrote above.

The mockup inflatable is not the Bigelow B-330, but the third-generation Olympus, also known as the B2100, meaning it has a volume of 2,100 cubic meters (74,000 cubic feet). It's speculated that NASA's Space Launch System may be necessary to launch it into space.

NASA Associate Administrator Bill Gerstenmaier is quoted as saying NASA does not intend to return BEAM after two years of service. The BEAM will be jettisoned and burn up in the atmosphere.

The article also noted the sizable Japanese contingent at the media event.

Hiroshi Kikuchi, senior managing director of Japan Manned Space Systems Corp., told NBC News that a wide variety of clients could use the Bigelow-made stations — including manufacturing companies such as Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, a major Japanese carmaker that he declined to identify, entertainment ventures and pharmaceutical companies.

“Many companies are waiting for the opportunity to use space station commercialization,” Kikuchi told NBC News. “Bigelow Aerospace could make it happen.”

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