As the sun rose on the International Space Station Saturday morning, NASA operations resumed to inflate the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM, and this time around things went smoothly and slowly.
BEAM is the first device of its kind to be tested and pressurized in space and could one day allow scientists and astronauts to set up bases and labs on other planets. Think Matt Damon in The Martian.
This same operation began Thursday but NASA halted operations when BEAM wasn’t expanding in diameter and length the way it was expected based on the the amount of air added. Once operations were stopped the team did see expansion over night but decided ultimately to depressurize BEAM on Friday and try again today.
It wasn’t an exciting event like Friday’s SpaceX rocket launch and landing, as it took more than seven hours for BEAM to expand.
It was such a slow and methodical process to ensure the crew and equipment aboard the space station were kept safe. Each time Williams added more pressurized gas into the chamber NASA would record its expansion via a live video feed attached to the exterior of the station. Based on BEAM’s reaction and expansion, NASA would crunch some numbers after each valve opening and determine the next amount of air that should be added.
Its final dimensions came to a diameter of 127 inches in width and 67 inches in length. NASA had predicted a theoretical length of 68 inches but NASA decided to continue anyway, confident in its safety. Astronaut Jeff Williams slowly added increments of air to the exterior capsule for a total of 1 minute and 33 seconds of added air flow until BEAM reached those dimensions.
Williams started the day by bringing the pressure back up to the level it was at Thursday and NASA quickly approved adding more pressure. Williams reported “pops” coming from BEAM, which was expected and a good sign of expansion as the straps that keep the structure together were stripped away. During the live broadcast on NASA’s website, Williams turned on the microphone to hear the expansion and it sounded like the exploding kernels of an expanding microwave popcorn bag.
Toward the end of the day the crew seemed fed up with waiting and fairly dramatically increased the amount of air flowing in and the frequency with which it was added. They even went through and pressurized the module to 14.2 psi, even though early on it looked as though that task would be deferred to Sunday.
BEAM’s expansion went much more smoothly today now that the fabric structures have relaxed, and this is good data and a positive first step for future expandable models.