It’s time for people to start thinking about their summer vacations. One company has a far-out tourist destination in mind—space! Engineers at Bigelow Aerospace have been working on a design for an inflatable space habitat (a living module) called the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM.
Earlier this month, the company successfully connected BEAM to the International Space Station (ISS)—a science lab orbiting, or circling, 250 kilometers (155 miles) above Earth—to see how well it withstands the harsh conditions in space. Bigelow believes similar expandable modules could someday serve as a hotel for space travelers and as a home base for astronauts to explore farther into the solar system.
On April 8, a deflated and folded-up BEAM blasted off into space aboard a Space X Dragon spacecraft, which was carrying supplies for the ISS. Once BEAM arrived, astronauts used a robotic arm to attach and assemble the portable room. BEAM will slowly inflate, like a balloon, over the next few weeks. By the end of May, the pod will measure 3 x 4 meters (10 x 13 feet), potentially giving the astronauts aboard the ISS 16 cubic m (565 cubic ft) of additional living space.
BEAM will stay attached to the ISS for two years. It will largely remain closed off to the rest of the station during testing, but ISS crew will periodically visit the structure to collect data and inspect how it is holding up.
Bigger and Farther
Bigelow Aerospace is also developing a much larger inflatable pod—20 times the size of BEAM. It’s expected to be able to house up to six astronauts and serve as a stand-alone space station. The company also has another use in mind for the heftier habitat—as lodgings for space tourists.
Bigelow intends to launch its roomier version of BEAM into orbit in 2020. And the company has plans even farther into the future. It believes inflatable buildings could serve as launchpads for future missions to Mars and beyond.
Inflatable habitats like BEAM “take up less room on a rocket, but once set up, provide greater volume for living and working,” Rajib Dasgupta, BEAM project manager at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, recently said in a statement. “After thorough testing, we believe crews traveling to the moon, Mars, asteroids, or other destinations could use them as habitable structures or as labs or work areas.”