Monday, June 06, 2016


"Beam me up — NASA experiments with inflatable modules" PBS NewsHour 6/1/2016


SUMMARY:  Over the weekend, astronauts aboard the orbiting International Space Station added a module like none other.  Think an RV that expands out the back with extra space for sleeping quarters.  In the case of the ISS, it was an inflatable Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM).  It's made of a material stronger than kevlar and could be a game-changer.  Science correspondent Miles O'Brien reports.

MILES O'BRIEN (NewsHour):  NASA just added some space to the space station, and it is 16 cubic meters like no other.  Inflated carefully with short spurts of air, it is an expandable module, the first designed for human habitation ever to reach low-Earth orbit.

It's a big step on the long road to building spacecraft and habitats for human missions to Mars.  Expandables allow engineers to color outside the lines, beyond the diameter of the nose cone of the rocket called the fairing.  That's the constraint when launching a module made of rigid aluminum.  It's sort of like carrying a tent to space.

Jason Crusan is NASA's director for advanced exploration systems.

JASON CRUSAN, NASA:  Expandables allow you to pack up whatever your habitat is and fit in more potential volume in the same fairing volume.  So that's the key advantage, is the volume advantage.

MILES O'BRIEN:  It's called BEAM, an acronym for Bigelow Expandable Activity Module.  It's a technology demonstrator, an experiment to see how well it performs in space.

The man behind BEAM, Robert Bigelow, watched it all unfold in the viewing room overlooking the space station flight control room in Houston.  His company, Bigelow Aerospace, is based in North Las Vegas.

All right, so what are we looking at here?

Bigelow made his fortune in real estate, contracting and extended stay hotels.  He is now pursuing a lifelong passion for space.  He believes expandables are a game-changer.

ROBERT BIGELOW, Bigelow Aerospace:  It's that dramatic.  It's that huge in terms of concept change.  We didn't invent the change.  This is a NASA idea.

MILES O'BRIEN:  It is an idea as old as the space age itself.  In a seminal series on space exploration in “Collier's” magazine in 1954, legendary rocket scientist Wernher von Braun envisioned humans flying to, and living on, Mars in inflatables.

The first communications satellites, Echo 1 and Echo 2, launched in 1960 and '64 respectively, were inflatable metallic balloons, passive reflectors of microwave transmissions.  At about the same time, NASA pondered several early space station designs with expandable modules.  And in the 1990s, when the International Space Station was becoming a reality, the agency designed an expandable called TransHab that would have replaced the U.S. crew quarters.

Expanded, it would have twice the diameter, and three times the volume, of the rigid aluminum structure currently in use.  But amid cost overruns, Congress canceled TransHab.  And Bigelow Aerospace obtained the patents from NASA.

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