The space habitats humans have used thus far have, for the most part, gone into orbit fully formed. The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) is an experimental inflatable habitat constructed by Bigelow Aerospace that made its way to the ISS on the SpaceX resupply mission in April (when SpaceX also nailed its first drone ship landing). BEAM was attached to the Tranquility node after it arrived, and NASA was supposed to inflate it today, but it had to abort the procedure.
BEAM is intended to act as a test of the reliability and efficiency of inflatable habitats in space. It took up a relatively small amount of space on the SpaceX Dragon capsule as a 7×8-foot cylinder. When expanded it will be 13-feet long, adding 565 cubic feet of space to the International Space Station. That’s more than the entire cargo volume of the Dragon. Because this is the first time anything of this scale has been attempted, there were bound to be some snags. Although, just not working is probably more of a snag than NASA was hoping for.
The plan was to slowly pressurize the unexpanded BEAM compartment, allowing the structure to expand to its full size. Because this is the first time something of this size has been inflated on the ISS, NASA wanted to take it slow and monitor how the expansion happened. The engineers weren’t even sure exactly how the structure would behave when pressurized, but they came up with several theories. Maybe it would expand across then out, or maybe the other way around? Well, we don’t know yet because NASA couldn’t get it to expand at all.
Astronaut Jeff Williams began letting air into BEAM using a small valve in one to four second bursts as instructed by ground control. The module did appear to be expanding as expected at first — it extended about five inches, then stopped. After adding more air in hopes of jostling the module loose, NASA had to call off the operation. The agency said in a statement that it’s working closely with Bigelow Aerospace to determine what’s causing the module to hang and what can be done about it.
A press conference originally scheduled for tomorrow has been postponed until NASA can figure out what to make of the stuck BEAM. Luckily, the BEAM was not being deployed with any specific use in mind other than testing expandable habitats. This is just part of the learning process.