NASA May Extend BEAM’s Time on International Space Station

Kate Rubins inspects BEAM. (Credit: NASA)

WASHINGTON, DC (NASA PR) — NASA is exploring options with Bigelow Aerospace to extend the life of the privately owned Bigelow Expandable Activity Module. Known as BEAM, the module is attached to the International Space Station and continues to perform well during its technology demonstration mission.

NASA has issued a synopsis of an intended contract action to partner with Bigelow Aerospace to extend the life of the expandable habitat and use it for long-term in-orbit storage. This step continues NASA’s commitment to expand private-public partnerships, scientific research and commercial applications aboard station to maximize the benefits from humanity’s premiere laboratory in microgravity.

NASA’s use of BEAM as part of a human-rated system will allow Bigelow Aerospace to demonstrate its technology for future commercial applications in low-Earth Orbit. Initial studies have shown that soft materials can perform as well as rigid materials for habitation volumes in space and that BEAM has performed as designed in resistance to space debris.

BEAM launched on the eighth SpaceX Commercial Resupply Service mission in 2016. After being attached to the Tranquility Node using the station’s robotic Canadarm2, it was filled with air to expand it for a two-year test period to validate overall performance and capability of expandable habitats.

Since the initial expansion, a suite of sensors installed by the crew automatically take measurements and monitor BEAM’s performance to help inform designs for future habitat systems. Learning how an expandable habitat performs in the thermal environment of space and how it reacts to radiation, micrometeoroids and orbital debris will provide information to address key concerns about living in the harsh environment of space.

This extension activity will deepen NASA’s understanding of expandable space systems by making the BEAM a more operational element of the space station to be actively used in storage and crew operations.

Space station crew members have entered BEAM 13 times since its expansion in May 2016. The crew has conducted radiation shielding experiments, installed passive radiation badges called Radiation Area Monitors, and they routinely collect microbial air and surface samples. These badges and samples are returned to Earth for standard microbial and radiation analysis at the Johnson Space Center.

The original plan called for engineers to robotically jettison BEAM from the space station following the two-year test and validation period, allowing it to burn up during its descent through Earth’s atmosphere.

However, after almost a year and a half into the demonstration with positive performance, NASA now intends to continue supporting BEAM for stowage use and to allow Bigelow Aerospace to use the module as a test-bed for new technology demonstrations.

A new contract would likely begin later this year, overlapping the original planned test period, for a minimum of three years, with two options to extend for one additional year. At the end of the new contract, the agency may consider further life extension or could again consider jettisoning BEAM from the station.

Using the space inside BEAM would allow NASA to hold between 109 to 130 Cargo Transfer Bags of in-orbit stowage, and long-term use of BEAM would enable NASA to gather additional performance data on the module’s structural integrity, thermal stability and resistance to space debris, radiation and microbial growth to help NASA advance and learn about expandable space habitat technology in low-Earth orbit for application toward future human exploration missions.

Given that the volume of each Cargo Transfer Bag is about 1.87 cubic feet (0.53 cubic meters), use of BEAM for stowage will free an equivalent space of about 3.7 to 4.4 International Standard Payload Racks, enabling more space in the ISS for research.

With an extension of the partnership, Bigelow also would be able to continue to demonstrate its technology for future commercial applications in low-Earth orbit. The public-private partnership between NASA and Bigelow supports NASA’s objective to develop deep space habitation capabilities for human missions beyond Earth orbit while fostering commercial capabilities for non-government applications to stimulate the growth of the space economy.

  • Technically, Bigelow now has 3 (count ’em THREE) facilities in orbit.
    Not bad sir.

  • Jimmy S. Overly

    I was preparing a remark about how many hotels he owns, but there are only 18 Budget Suites of America locations and they’re concentrated in 4 cities. I figured it was more than that.

  • Isn’t it heartwarming to know that a moderately successful business person can turn their passion for space into a neat business? There’s no requirement that you own the largest .com website or have are a household name.

  • Jimmy S. Overly

    Fingers crossed he ends up with more space hotels than earth hotels!

  • LOL! That’ll be the day. Now companies have to think about their domestic growth strategy, their international growth strategy and their OFF EARTH growth strategy!!!

    This will LITERALLY become a real problem. “We’ve already had great success setting up our India, Germany and LEO business units. But we are still evaluating our expansion into the GEO and Lunar markets. We are having trouble finding people with the right experience and suppliers that are used to building and delivering to those locations.”

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    I wonder how he grew is business…. Leverage? High interest bank loans? Or organically? If it was organic then 4 cities is pretty good. Then consider 4 cities and supporting Bigellow Aerospace for over a decade. Not bad at all.

  • Jimmy S. Overly

    Not to knock his achievement, but BA has expanded and contracted a few times, furloughing or laying off employees in the process. I think that’s more of the maturity of the industry vs. anything he did wrong.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    Oh, I may not have been clear on this. I was musing about his motel/hotel business, not BA. Sorry.

  • windbourne

    Hotel is just one business of his. His major maker is construction.

  • Vladislaw

    Bigelow built units and rented them out also .. he had built about 15000 units and bought another 8000 units… he dumped a huge amount of those units during the real estate boom and got out before the crash in 08′

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    I hope this work continues. Seems like the most efficient way to get the hab volume up (no more hamster tunnels). That said I wonder if plans like BFR and NG with much wider fairings will take the interest off expandable modules. On the other hand, you get then just make giant habs if you have 8+ meters to work with.

  • duheagle

    Nothing “technically” about it. They’re there and they’re three.

  • duheagle

    I’ll drink to that!

  • duheagle

    Only in America as the saying goes.

  • duheagle

    First World problems. How I love ’em.

  • duheagle

    More like the immaturity of the industry, but yeah.

  • duheagle

    I read one story long before Bigelow was a space tycoon in which it was said he, his wife and all his kids – I forgot how many he has – did construction work on all the early Budget Suites units alongside the contractor personnel. Talk about a family business!

  • duheagle

    The real estate bubble popped early in Vegas, where he lives. Even so, a very astute move.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    Thanks for that data point. The fact that he’s kept BA alive for so long says an awful lot. The US is very lucky that it has so many tycoons with a long view.