Astronauts Inflate Their First Expandable Habitat in Space

NASA's Jeff Williams is in the process of expanding the BEAM module of the ISS.

May 26 2016, 11:10am

What the BEAM should look like when it's expanded. Image: Bigelow Aerospace

The International Space Station is currently expanding its cushy new room, the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM). It's the first expandable habitat of its kind and will act as a demonstration for potential inflatable space-environments of the future.

NASA astronaut Jeff Williams, who launched up to the ISS in March, is currently manning the BEAM control panel in orbit, and you can watch him go through the procedures to expand the module (and feel jealous that you're not able to work in zero gravity in your socks) over a NASA livestream.

BEAM was developed for NASA by Bigelow Aerospace and is essentially a prototype for the blow-up space habitats of the future. It launched to the ISS in April on SpaceX's Dragon and has been awaiting its moment to prove itself as a human-fit expandable home.

A key advantage of this kind of expandable module is that it's smaller (and therefore easier and cheaper) to launch into space, but provides more room when it's at its full volume. The BEAM started off at 2.16 m in length and 2.36 m in diameter and will expand to 4.01 m and 3.23 m respectively—a significant increase. The final volume will be 565 cubic feet.

Astronaut Jeff Williams opening the valve for just a second to let a small amount of air in near the beginning of the BEAM expansion

The expansion process started at 5:30 AM ET with Williams releasing the straps holding the BEAM in its smaller shape. At around 6:15, Williams began to introduce air manually into the module to expand it out over what was expected to be a total period of around 45 minutes. However, operations were paused at about 7:00 AM as NASA reported the pressure of the module was slightly higher than expected.

Interestingly, there are a few shapes BEAM could go through before it reaches its full expansion; it starts as a squat cylinder and ends as a an almost-spherical bubble, but NASA explains there are several "expansion scenarios."

Once it's fully deployed, the air in the module will be pressurised to match that in the rest of the station. The ISS crew will then measure how the BEAM deals with radiation, temperature, and space debris over two years. The module is intended as a test subject rather than a new living quarters.

Bigelow is already working on a bigger expandable module called B330, and the idea is that these kind of scalable habitats—if BEAM proves successful—could be deployed elsewhere in space.

In a Reddit AMA ahead of the launch, NASA BEAM Deputy Manager Steve Munday suggested we could even see expandable habitats on Mars—"Just as in the movie, The Martian...only without the catastrophic explosion that nearly killed Matt Damon."

Update: NASA stopped the BEAM expansion around 8:30 AM ET after issues with the pressure measurements. It says it will resume operations on Friday, after reviewing the data.