Speaking of space and the International Space Station, starting (nominally) at 02:30 PDT, 05:30 EDT, the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) is set to start deploying. That’s just a bit over two hours from now.
Up until now, all crewed spacecraft have been made of metal with rigid walls. Aluminium (by either pronunciation), titanium, steel. Because it’s sorta important to keep the air inside and the radiation and boiling heat and incredible cold and vacuum outside. Of course spacecraft were made of metal! Duh!
That puts lots of restrictions and limits on size. The ISS was put together on orbit of a dozen or so metal modules, joined together into a larger structure, with lots of other stuff like trusses, solar panels, radiators, experiments, robot arms, and docking ports connected to the outside. But because all of those modules had to be launched on top of Soviet rockets or carried up in the cargo bay of a space shuttle, they’re all only so long and only so wide.
What if you didn’t make the module of rigid metal?
What if you made it of something that was collapsible and expandable, which could be squished together to fit into a rocket for launch, and then blown up like a balloon when you’re in space? Couldn’t that be bigger? Couldn’t that potentially be a LOT bigger?
We’re going to start finding out tonight. Bigelow Aerospace has been building and developing these expandable habitat modules for many years, and has actually launched two fairly large ones as experiments. These uncrewed test vehicles performed well and lasted for months on orbit, proving the concept. Tonight the first human-rated module will be expanded. It was brought up to the ISS on board the latest SpaceX Dragon cargo vehicle, then pulled out and installed on an ISS port using the Canadian robot arm.
If you’re able, you should watch it on NASA-TV. We’re all hoping it will be new and amazing, with tremendous potential for the future.
Think about a ship made of four or six of these going to Mars, with a couple of SpaceX’s “Red Dragon” landers and a total volume two or three times that of the ISS. Think about a private space station (or, as some might call it, a hotel) with a dozen or more of these, with “private spaceflight participants” (or, as some might call them, tourists) going up on SpaceX Dragons for a week or two in Low Earth Orbit.
Wouldn’t it be great if that happened in our lifetimes? Or at least in mine?
One of the big steps on that road starts in two hours.