Bigelow Aerospace seeking additional use of experimental ISS module

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WASHINGTON — Bigelow Aerospace is in discussions with NASA about extended use of an experimental module added to the International Space Station last year, but both the company and the space agency say no agreement has been reached yet.

In a Jan. 18 tweet, the company said that the performance of its Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) “continues to outperform expectations.” The module, built under a NASA contract and flown to the station on a SpaceX Dragon cargo spacecraft in April 2016, was installed on the station and expanded to its full size in late May.

In the same tweet, the company said it and NASA “are in agreement to evolve BEAM into becoming an everyday asset aboard the ISS.” The company did not elaborate on what that would involve.

In a statement to SpaceNews Jan. 18, company founder Robert Bigelow said more details about any agreement with NASA about extended use of BEAM would be released at a later date. “We are excited that BEAM may serve multiple uses that could extend its time attached to station well beyond the original two-year expected period,” he said. “We will be happy to provide more specifics as this process develops shortly.”

NASA spokeswoman Cheryl Warner said Jan. 18 that the agency was still in discussions with Bigelow about “next steps” for BEAM. “The BEAM demonstration is providing valuable data regarding how the materials and an expandable structure perform in the space environment,” she said. “We are in discussions with Bigelow Aerospace to evaluate the next steps for the module.”

BEAM’s principal mission is to demonstrate the company’s expandable module technology and its suitability for use on crewed spacecraft. Although the company previously demonstrated that technology on two uncrewed spacecraft, Genesis 1 and 2, launched in 2006 and 2007, respectively, BEAM is the first time an expandable module has had people inside while in space.

BEAM is designed for a two-year mission on the ISS. The module is closed off from the rest of the station most of the time, with astronauts periodically entering BEAM to check the status of the module and instruments mounted inside.

NASA has previously indicated that it would dispose of BEAM at the end of its two-year mission, using the station’s robotic arm to detach the module and allow it to burn up in the atmosphere. There are no immediate plans, though, for use of the docking port where BEAM is installed after that two-year mission ends, opening the possibility for an extended mission.

Robert Bigelow has previously suggested there was commercial interest in the module. As a NASA press conference in April 2016 prior to the launch of BEAM, he said there were four different groups, both countries and companies, interested in flying experiments in BEAM. “We’re hoping that, maybe in half a year or something, we can get permission from NASA to accommodate these people in some way,” he said then.

NASA has identified the ISS port currently used by BEAM as a location that could eventually host larger commercial modules, intended as a stepping-stone to full-fledged commercial space stations. NASA issued a request for information (RFI) last July that several companies, including Bigelow Aerospace, responded to regarding use of that port and other station resources to host a commercial module.

In a blog post published on the NASA web site Oct. 11, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and John Holdren, director of the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, said that the responses to the RFI led NASA to decide to move ahead with plans to offer that port to commercial users. The agency is yet to release additional details on those plans.