Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) is made of multiple soft layers to withstand impact from space debris, radiation and temperature changes. As NASA reported, “the different layers consist of an air barrier or bladder, structural restraint, micro-meteoroid and orbital debris (MMOD) layers, and external multi-layer thermal insulation layers,” but, sadly, no windows to gaze out of at the blue marble.
The module is deflated for now, but is scheduled to be filled with air in late May to start its two-year testing phase.
“Attaching this expandable module to the space station offers NASA the opportunity to expose it to the radiation, temperatures, pressures and micrometeoroid environment, and measure how it holds up,” Julie Robinson, NASA’s chief scientist for the International Space Station, said. After inflation, ISS astronauts will enter BEAM only three to four times a year, to collect data and assess its structural condition, while the remainder of the time it will stay closed off from the space station and its crew.
After its two-year-long monitoring, the module will be set off toward Earth to burn up upon re-entry into its atmosphere. But the hope is that bigger and better modules will follow.
“After thorough testing, we believe crews traveling to the moon, Mars, asteroids or other destinations could use them as habitable structures or as labs or work areas,” said Rajib Dasgupta, BEAM project manager at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.
Bigelow is working on another version, the B330, that is 20 times bigger than BEAM, and is developing timeshare agreements to lease the structure. Except instead of a typical timeshare that rents beachfront condos to vacation-goers and spring breakers, Bigelow would rent the space to research organizations like NASA, commercial entities and space tourists. Its website’s description reads like a futuristic Airbnb ad:
“Occupancy: 6. Approximate length: 57 ft. Usable volume: 330 m3. Life span: 20 years.”
The Huffington Post reports that NASA is interested in expandable habitats as crew living quarters during future trips to and from Mars. And outside of B330’s scientific uses, the opportunities are endless. Inflatable space stations are much easier to transport, as they take up far less transport volume on a rocket but can provide a far greater area for living, working and, in the case of wealthy space fanatics, visiting. This development combined with NASA’s experiments of potato growth in a Mars-like climate could just mean that a manned mission like Mark Watney’s in “The Martian” is getting closer to a reality.