The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) has been in operation as part of the International Space Station since April of last year. The BEAM is the first module on the International Space Station to have arrived folded up rather than in a rigid finalized structure and then fully deployed once attached to its berth on the space station.
Despite public perception, the BEAM doesn’t inflate like a balloon when filled with air and can maintain its structure even if it loses pressure. Much of its functionality as an expandable module comes from the use of Kevlar instead of steel in its structure. Kevlar is more commonly used in bulletproof vests. BEAM also has layers of shielding that protect it from space debris, which astronauts say is a good thing because they’re positive it’s been hit by a very small meteorite at least once. They say there’s not visible damage to the module.
NASA has invested in BEAM as a way to develop the capacity to pack more volume into a smaller cargo space when sending new infrastructure into space. Previously, NASA relied on the space shuttle to ship fully assembled modules up to the space station because the shuttle was the only vehicle that had enough cargo space. With options like BEAM, NASA may be able to pack the same amount of volume into unmanned spacecraft like the SpaceX Dragon. This is roughly analogous to being able to pack a bigger tent and more camping supplies in the trunk of your BMW when preparing for a camping trip because you can fold up and pack your tent rather than having to fully assemble it before putting it into the trunk.
The concept is proving so successful that NASA is floating the possibility of retaining BEAM even after its planned two-year deployment is complete. This is an idea that should be popular with astronauts who may have desired more room on the International Space Station because BEAM has the same volume as an average school bus. It hasn’t been used for anything beyond a test of the expandable module concept, although astronauts do seem to enjoy going into the module to take readings. NASA has stated that the module may eventually be used as additional storage space.
BEAM is also a predecessor for Bigelow’s planned B330, an inflatable stand-alone space station that will be 20 times bigger than BEAM. Bigelow hesitated to commit to promptly launching a fleet of B330s if BEAM successfully completes its two-year mission, citing the increased complexity of the B330. The company may launch the first two B330s as early as 2020 as part of a full systems shakedown that includes tests of the solar panels and a full suite of life support systems.
“That’s why I walk around perpetually with a frown. It’s just because there’s so much to think about and be concerned about,” said Bigelow Aerospace president Robert Bigelow.
The continued success of BEAM may give Bigelow one less thing to worry about, however, because it shows that expandable modules can work in a hazardous space environment that includes space debris and the occasional small meteorite.