NASA is pleased to report that since launching aboard SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft this past spring and docking with the International Space Station, nothing bad has happened to the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM). This is actually great news! Bad stuff happens to space technology all the time (and BEAM itself went through some hiccups during first inflation attempt). BEAM though, is not only in top shape, but is also transmitting back important relevant to the future development of experimental spacecraft structures.
BEAM, the first expandable space environment designed for housing humans, is in the midst of a two-year mission on the ISS. It was successfully inflated in May after a brief false start on its first attempt, and has apparently been doing the job since just as expected to. Of particular interest might be that researchers at NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston are in the process of analyzing radiation particles left behind by Galactic Cosmic Rays (GCR), which should help them better understand the demands placed on space technology by radiation in general, which is a major concern for the Mars missions.
“The two-year BEAM mission on ISS provides us with an early opportunity to understand how expandable habitats perform in space,” said BEAM Manager Steve Munday in a news release. “We’re extraordinarily fortunate to have the the space station and its crew to help demonstrate and assess BEAM technology for use in future exploration missions.”
The simple ability of BEAM to do its job is in itself a pretty big relief. It’s essentially a proving ground for future expandable environments in which astronauts need to be able to live and do lab work. It’s also a good example of the kind of functional public-private partnership on which our space travel endeavors are increasingly reliant. BEAM is a collaboration between NASA and Bigelow Airspace (and caught a ride to the ISS courtesy of another private spaceflight enterprise, SpaceX), which is already designing bigger and better inflatable modules. Half a dozen other entities are also jockeying for position in the suddenly very busy field of expandable habitable environments, including Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Orbital ATK.
Robert T. Bigelow of Bigelow Airspace recently expressed the belief that in Trump’s America, we could see thrice the economic growth we did under the “anemic” Obama administration and called on the president-elect to increase NASA’s budget accordingly. Kinda anyone’s guess at the moment how that’s going to go.