WASHINGTON — A module built by Bigelow Aerospace will join the International Space Station later this year in a test of both the company’s technology and NASA’s use of alternative contracting techniques.
NASA and Bigelow Aerospace marked the completion of all the development milestones for the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) in a ceremony March 12 at the company’s North Las Vegas, Nevada, headquarters. Bigelow built BEAM under a $17.8 million contract NASA awarded in late 2012.
Bigelow will ship BEAM to the Kennedy Space Center, Florida, in late March for integration with a SpaceX Dragon cargo spacecraft. That Dragon will transport BEAM to the ISS on a mission scheduled for September. The station’s robotic arm will then attach BEAM to a port on the Tranquility module.
When fully expanded, BEAM will provide 16 cubic meters of additional volume for the station. BEAM will be attached to the station for a minimum of two years to allow astronauts to test the performance of the inflatable module in the space environment, including how much radiation and micrometeorite protection it provides.
“The lion’s share of our experience is with rigid structures,” said Jason Crusan, director of the advanced exploration division of NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, in a March 12 interview. “This gives us an opportunity to get some real on-orbit performance data.”
While inflatable modules have shown promise for future exploration architectures, there is limited data about their performance, forcing engineers working on models of those systems to use a number of assumptions. “When you run those models with those assumptions, inflatables don’t always come out with the lowest mass and best trades,” Crusan said. “Getting that on-orbit data will allow us to refine those models.”
Once installed, BEAM will be largely sealed off from the rest of ISS, with astronauts entering it every four to six months to retrieve data from sensors inside it. Crusan suggested NASA will consider making greater use of the module over time as the agency becomes more comfortable with its performance. That would require additional work inside the module, he said, since it has no active life support system beyond some fans.
BEAM allows NASA to test not just engineering models, but acquisition models as well. NASA’s contract with Bigelow is a firm fixed price one that includes performance milestones through launch and testing of the module on the station. “If it doesn’t work, they don’t get paid,” Crusan said of Bigelow.
That approach let NASA take more of a hands-off approach during BEAM’s development. “It allowed us to back off on some of the insight and oversight,” Crusan said, adding that a team of fewer than five NASA employees managed the project.
Bigelow is motivated to make BEAM work since it is a major step toward future, much larger expandable modules the company is developing for commercial use. “It’s a proof of concept,” said George Zamka of Bigelow Aerospace in a March 12 interview. “We will be interested to see what the astronauts’ reactions are.”
Zamka is director of crew and cargo operations for Bigelow’s next module, the B330, named after the module’s volume in cubic meters once fully inflated. He said data from BEAM will be incorporated into the B330, which is still in the early phases of development. That work will start ramping up now that BEAM is completed, he said.
Bigelow’s goal is to have two B330 modules completed by the end of 2017, ready to launch once commercial crew systems under development by Boeing and SpaceX enter commercial service. Zamka said the company is still in the planning stage of crew and cargo transportation contracts with those companies. “We’ll be ready to go when they are,” he said.
As Bigelow officials have previously stated, Zamka said the company is looking to sign up governments as customers for its commercial space station. “We’re talking to a number of different space agencies and other entities interested in a commercial space station,” he said, declining to identify any specific potential customers.
Zamka, a veteran of two space shuttle missions as a NASA astronaut before joining Bigelow last year, said he would be interested in flying in space again with his new employer. “The endpoint for me would be serving as a commercial astronaut on a Bigelow space station,” he said.