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Bigelow’s station habitat to be expanded Thursday

Space station flight engineer Jeff Williams will send commands Thursday to pump air into an experimental soft-sided module developed by commercial space habitat builder Bigelow Aerospace, expanding the structure to four times its current size in a stepping stone to future orbital destinations.

The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM, is beginning a two-year campai2 feet (gn of tests at the International Space Station to prove the innovative habitat’s technology is compatible with the stringent guidelines for human spaceflight.

Packed into a depressurized configuration less than 8 feet (2.4 meters) in diameter and 5.7 feet (1.7 meters) long, BEAM will grow like a tent to a width of 10.5 feet (3.2 meters) and a length of 12 feet (3.7 meters) during Thursday’s expansion, the first time such a technique has ever been tested with astronauts in the loop.

“This is our first chance for an expandable (module) to interact with humans on orbit, so we’re really excited,” said Lisa Kauke, BEAM’s deputy project manager at Bigelow Aerospace, a company headquartered near Las Vegas founded by wealthy real estate investor Robert Bigelow.

“The advantage of launching an expandable to space is the packing factor,” Kauke said. “In other words, it packs down really small in the launch vehicle, and it saves on mass, but most importantly volume, and then once it gets on orbit it expands.”

Once enlarged to its pressurized dimension, BEAM will have an internal volume of 565 cubic feet, or 16 cubic meters. That is roughly equivalent to a family-size tent.

Bigelow plans to launch a much larger expandable module as soon as 2020. Called the B330, in recognition of its 330-cubic meter (11,653-cubic foot) volume, the habitat will have life support systems to support up to six astronauts on its own, forming a commercial destination in orbit for researchers, professional astronauts and space tourists.

BEAM is entirely reliant on the International Space Station, but it will verify the expandable technology is suitable for human occupants.

Bill Gerstenmaier, chief of NASA’s human exploration and operations directorate, said that the space agency is eager to see the results of the BEAM demonstration.

“Does it meet all the things that it’s purported to meet? It’s supposed to have better micrometeoroid and debris protection, better thermal protection, better acoustics, and we’ll see if it has those,” Gerstenmaier said in March. “We’ll also understand how to use a fairly large volume, which we have not had experience with.”

A SpaceX Dragon cargo capsule delivered the BEAM structure to the space station April 8. The research lab’s Canadian-built robotic arm pulled the module out of the Dragon spacecraft’s trunk section April 16 and attached it to the station’s Tranquility module.

Ground controllers plan a multi-step process to inflate the module Thursday beginning around 5:30 a.m. EDT (0930 GMT).

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

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Bigelow’s station habitat to be expanded Thursday

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