He sounded nervous, and why shouldn’t he be. His life’s work had been cinched up tight for more than a year, and who knew whether it would work in the harsh environment of space.
In an interview in April, Robert Bigelow said he hopeful that the inflatable habitat his space company had developed would, in fact, inflate once it reached the International Space Station. But after SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket blew up last year, the launch of the habitat was delayed significantly.
“This has been waiting for a year," said Bigelow, the founder of Bigelow Aerospace. "We’ve didn’t expect that. We thought, well maybe three or four months. But it’s been cinched up really tight in that mode for over a year. We’re not necessarily concerned. It’s just one more element that we would rather not have. We’d like to have not gone through that. We don’t know if t it makes a different if it's cinched up for one year or ten years.”
Then, on Thursday, the big day came—the moment astronauts aboard the station would begin pumping air into the habitat, known as the BEAM, the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module.
It didn’t go so well.
The pressure was off, and after two and a half hours, NASA officials called it off for another day. Finally, on Saturday, the BEAM inflated successfully, giving the station another room.
The BEAM, made of a Kevlar-like material, is scheduled to stay attached to the station for two years, where it will be tested to see how it fares in space. Astronauts will enter the module from time to time to take readings.
If successful, Bigelow said his habitats could be used to create commercial stations in space that could be used by other companies and even other governments that haven’t been able to fly to the International Space Station. The company has already developed another line of habitats, the B33, which is 20 times as large as the BEAM. And it hopes to test that habitat out on the space station in preparation for flying them by 2020.