I have just returned from the launch of the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) to the International Space Station (ISS). It was the 8th commercial resupply services (CRS-8) mission for NASA by the SpaceX Flacon 9 rocket from their launch complex 40 at Kennedy Space Center. I was a launch site guest of Bigelow Aerospace Company at Kennedy Space Center. Mr. Bigelow is the President and founder of Bigelow Aerospace Company. He will be speaking for the third time at the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight (ISPCS). It took six years of work to get him to speak at ISPCS. He admires our persistence and discipline. He finds value in coming to our conference. He provides value to the agenda as a speaker, and more important he stays and networks with the other commercial space leaders and audience members. Be assured, Mr. Bigelow would not have walked into my office and offered his services to New Mexico Space Grant, it’s not gonna happen. I had to get out and meet him. And it still took 3 years until he made it to ISPCS 2011. Oh, and he’s hiring.
Mr. Bigelow refers to the expandable football shaped habitat BEAM as “our little baby”. The BEAM has been waiting to go to the International Space Station for over a year. She’s been all scrunched up in her canister in the trunk of the SpaceX capsule called Dragon. Mr. B is worried. You see, BEAM is flexible and expandable, like the walls of a tent. The “secret sauce” for the walls is a Kevlar like bullet proof vest material. The year in strapped confinement is the result of launch delays from previous missions. Yet, Mr. Bigelow and his team know, every part of this mission is about learning. He is developing a company that will be building the first commercial space station. He’s smart, surrounds himself with smart people. He listens, watches, and puts his own money on the line. He has partnered with NASA, the best and most experienced agency in the world on designing the life support systems for humans who live and work in space.
It was game on at the launch site. My NASA colleagues were there, so were ISPCS sponsors including SpaceX and CASIS among others. CASIS, the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, is sending an NMSU experiment to ISS, hopefully next year. Space Grant helped get this project started, funded faculty and students to work on it. After testing and analysis of results on ISS this suite of sensors will be commercialized with the help of the Arrowhead Center. And it has potential use for Mr. Bigelow’s commercial space station. It could help preserve fuel as he keeps his station in its proper orbital inclination. We recruited CASIS to ISPCS, and subsequently held an ISS Researchers Conference here last year to showcase statewide capability to the 4 scientists and Business Development people from CASIS.
BEAM will be removed by the Canadian robotic arm,Dexter, from the Dragon’s trunk. Imagine this football shaped package with the ends cut off, and on each end is a ring called a bulkhead. On one end of the football BEAM will attach to the space station. By the time you read this article, we hope the BEAM will be berthed to her new home on the ISS Trinity, node 3. In order for the BEAM to expand to her full volume, a few things will happen. The bands or restraining straps will be separated remotely allowing BEAM to expand in width, and the end nuts will be released allowing her to grow longer. All of this will happen over 5 days. Eventually, the BEAM interior pressure of 15 pounds per square inch will be equivalent to the pressure inside the ISS. At full volume, the BEAM will be 13 feet long and 10 and a half feet in diameter, about the size of a large closet. BEAM is carrying 8canisters of fresh air which will be released to help equalize the pressure with ISS.
We will soon find out how she survived her confinement. Once the shuttle program ended, NASA lost its ability to loft large containers like the Tranquility node. If the BEAM meets all her expectations, NASA as well as Bigelow’s customers have a new future. The BEAM will spend 2 years in space as a technology demonstration platform for future missions. Astronauts will enter the module periodically to record data and perform inspections. This is another first for NASA, because the BEAM is part also of a NASA crewed mission, that is, she will be directly involved with the crew. The BEAM will be monitored for pressure, temperature, radiation protection, and of course the dreaded impacts from space debris. She is moving at over 17,000 miles a minute. Even a paint chip becomes a ballistic bullet in space.
Space is a dangerous environment, war is a dangerous environment too. We humans place ourselves in danger, in this case, the astronauts are working to assure humans are able to survive as a species. If we don’t kill ourselves off, we will become an interplanetary species likely within the next 30 years. The BEAM is the beginning of commercial efforts to move away from mankind’s total dependency on government to fund and establish a commercial space station. This mission, NASA is a partner and provided $18 million for this mission. We still need each other, here on earth and in space.