Well, they tried. Early this morning, NASA was supposed to deploy the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module—BEAM, a giant inflatable tent affixed to the International Space Station. However, the agency aborted the attempt after the module failed to properly expand. NASA deferred for one day, to troubleshoot what might be going wrong.
This would have been a big deal, and not simply because the astronauts probably would like some extra room about now. Proving the viability of this technology brings a Mars mission (or a Martian habitat, or a lunar habitat, or a cislunar habitat) a smidge or two closer to reality.
After hitching a ride aboard SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft on April 8th, BEAM has been hanging out on the ISS waiting for it's moment to shine. This morning, led by NASA astronaut Jeff Williams, the ISS team started up the expansion—BEAM would have swelled from 7.09 feet long and 7.75 feet in diameter to 13.16 feet long and 10.5 feet in diameter. Nobody knows exactly how BEAM will inflate in microgravity, but none of the models predicted that two hours of pumping would only result in expanding BEAM's width—today's outcome. Check back later for updates as NASA understands more about what went wrong.
But even if today's attempt had worked, no astronauts would set foot inside the module until June 2nd, after a week's worth of tests and checks. And BEAM isn't much to look at. It's essentially a pair of metal bulkheads and a windowless sack of soft fabrics. But what it lacks in curb appeal, it makes up for in scientific promise. If long-distance space exploration is going to happen, astronauts are going to need a safe place to set up shop.
"What you're buying with inflatables is the ability to send up something that's shaped like a giant hockey puck or a birthday cake, and then have it expand to a habitat about four times that size," says Steven Munday, the BEAM Program's Deputy Director.
And if they're going to get very far past the atmosphere without burning through all their fuel, their supplies are going to have to be light. So Bigelow Aerospace and NASA found a way to turn cloth into something that can protect the human body from the cold vacuum of space.
"We faced a lot of design challenges, primarily because this is a one-of-a-kind, first-of-its-kind technology," says Rajib Dasgupta, who led the project. Also because, as we have said so many times before, space is hard. Beyond developing all new tech, Dasgupta's team had to deal with normal space stuff like ensuring everything is airtight and protecting against radiation. Oh, it also had to make sure nothing about BEAM messed with the space station. "We had to be very careful that too much load would not be transferred to the ISS during expansion, and that we didn't contaminate the ISS—all of the fabrics in BEAM will be off-gassing at first."
Aside from being round and smelling a bit like a new car, what will BEAM actually be like? "This is not a bouncy castle in space," Munday says. "It's actually very rigid when it's fully expanded. When the astronauts first go in, it will be dark, cold, and possibly a little bit wet." But even though things will get better after astronauts set up equipment like fans to circulate air, BEAM is not going to be the ISS's lounge area.
Once inflated, BEAM will spend two years collecting data on its own performance—dealing with things like temperature and pressure and radiation, which is particularly important in deep space. "The way fabrics and metals protect against radiation is different—the physics is different," Dasgupta says. "We don't know the relative radiation protectivity of fabrics, so that's one of the big objectives of this mission."
The engineers went overboard on safety when designing this first BEAM. In addition to an outer plating of MMOD (Micrometeoroid and Orbital Debris) protection, which Munday compares to "dragon scales," the fabrics are engineered in such a way that BEAM is actually stronger than the aluminum alloys typically used in spacecraft—even so, NASA took no chances at the thing exploding due to improper inflation.
At the moment BEAM is no featherweight, but one day it could be. Decreasing the weight of your payload is pretty important if you want to escape the gravity well without carrying excess fuel, and the fact that expandable units collapse into something easily packable is a huge plus for long-term space travel.
But while a Mars mission remains a gleam in NASA's eye, the BEAM team is already thinking in terms so far seen only in science fiction. "We need experience before we can build a habitat like the one they have The Martian—but what Matt Damon has in the movie actually isn't too far from reality," Munday says. "All of those features, like inflatable airlocks, are being considered." Once NASA figures out how to inflate BEAM properly, it can get back to work making sure Mars-bound astronauts of the future won't end up eating potatoes grown in their own poop.