You have to expect a few hiccups when trying something for the first time, and that’s even more true when no one has ever attempted something before. That was the case when NASA deployed the BEAM inflatable habitat module on the International Space Station last week. The agency’s first attempt didn’t work, but it eventually got everything sorted out. Now, the first humans have entered the first inflatable habitat in space.
Because this is the first time an inflatable module has been used by humans in space, there’s a lot of testing to be done. After getting the module expanded and pressurized last week, there was plenty to check out before anyone ventured into the module. No one was even certain the BEAM would remain intact in orbit. Everything looked good over the weekend, so NASA decided to go ahead with the test.
In the early hours of June 6th, NASA astronaut Jeff Williams opened the hatch to BEAM and ventured inside with Russian cosmonaut Oleg Skripochka. This first order of business was to collect an air sample form inside the 565-cubic-foot space. They also checked readings on the pre-installed sensors. The pair also noted there was no evidence of condensation on the inner surfaces.
The astronauts left the BEAM after completing their task and sealed the hatch behind them. That will actually be a theme during testing of this new room on the ISS. After each excursion into the inflatable space, astronauts will seal it up tight until the next time. BEAM is not destined to be used long-term on the station; it’s merely an experiment. Astronauts are scheduled to enter the BEAM several more times this week to deploy additional sensors. They’ll also be monitoring how the multi-layered flexible shell holds up.
When NASA has gathered all the data it needs from BEAM, the station’s robotic arm will detach it from the station so it can fall back into the atmosphere and burn up. NASA and BEAM developer Bigelow Aerospace are working hard on inflatable habitats in part because the ISS isn’t going to last forever. It took years to assemble that station from solid components, but the BEAM adds a huge amount of volume to the ISS without taking up much space on the SpaceX Dragon capsule. Future space stations could be much more flexible and cost effective.
Expandable habitats like BEAM aren’t just for space, though. NASA is also in the early stages of evaluating possible Mars missions. Expandable habitats save space, which is vitally important on such a long trip. If BEAM is a success, we’ll be one step closer.