The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM, is a 3,000-pound inflatable module docked to the International Space Station. In April, BEAM was shipped off to the space station aboard SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft.
NASA was planning to finally expand the lovable zero-gravity moon bounce on Thursday — yet ran into problems and was forced to postpone the operation.
During a news conference Friday, the agency finally revealed the problem: although the first three steps to unlock BEAM’s expansion sequence went off without a hitch, the pressurization of the module ran into problems. After NASA began to open and close the pressure valves needed unfurl the module, they began monitoring the pressure-to-volume ratio. (Physics lesson: as pressure increases, so does volume!)
“We ran into higher forces than our models previously predicted,” Jason Crusan, the director for the Advanced Exploration Systems (AES) Division at NASA, told reporters. Basically, the BEAM habitat was not expanding in the way that it should have, and NASA — in another sign of how conservatively they operate — decided to halt pressurization at that point.
Crusan mentioned that ground control “did see further expansion of Beam” overnight. Although this was just a slight increase in size, it was a “very positive sign.”
Nevertheless, NASA chose to depressurize BEAM Friday morning, in hopes that it would see a relaxation of the fabric structures that make up the module.
A Saturday Attempt
The agency and its astronauts onboard will try again to expand the habitat on Saturday. If that doesn’t work, they will reassess their options, but emphasized that they do not foresee any major problems regardless of whether BEAM is successfully expanded or not.
BEAM, for which NASA awarded Bigelow Aerospace $17.8 million to build, is part of an overall effort to advance technologies that will allow the world’s space agencies and private companies to make it much easier and inexpensive to build and maintain viable structures in space for human habitation.
It’s insanely difficult to build a space station piece-by-piece in a microgravity or zero-gravity environment. BEAM was built on the notion that a space habitat can simply be built on the ground, and then allowed to expand up in space and be almost instantly ready for humans to live and work there.
Kenny Todd, manager for ISS Mission Operations Integration at NASA, continuously reiterated, “it doesn’t surprise me a great deal that we ended up here.” He mentioned that the pressurization process NASA and Bigelow chose to run with was a stepwise method that applied pressure to BEAM slowly. This was because, it being the first time NASA has attempted to conduct such a demonstration, ISS engineers didn’t want to create a situation where a high pressure would cause BEAM to act aberrantly and create an unstable load on the rest of the space station.
“We want to ensure that whenever we have the expansion event, we don’t impart too many significant forces onto the space station itself,” said Crusan. NASA personnel on the ground have yet to decide whether they will try again with a moderated pressurization sequence, or attempt to apply more pressure earlier on or at a later step.
NASA will begin pressurization early on Saturday so that there is enough time to depressurize BEAM if another problem arises.
Crusan and others at NASA hypothesize that unanticipated friction, specifically caused by the BEAM’s fabric layers, contributed to higher-than-expected forces acting on the spacecraft. In a press release issued before the conference, Bigelow noted that the fabric materials had been tightly packed for quite some time since the module was launched in April. It takes time for that fabric to return to its original shape, and depressurization at this point might allow those materials to “relax” insofar that they can expand correctly this time.
Todd also noted that the crew onboard the ISS are set to do some experiments involving the station’s robotic arms starting Monday, and so any follow-up activity with BEAM would not be conducted until mid-to-late next week.
NASA also released this video about the expansion problems this afternoon: