NASA tests inflatable pod on space station

Call it a bouncy castle at your peril: it’s an expandable space habitat, don’t you know. And it’s to be the next big addition to the International Space Station, arriving in 2015 for a two-year trial.

The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) comes thanks to a $17.8 million contract with Bigelow Aerospace.

“Today we’re demonstrating progress on a technology that will advance important long-duration human spaceflight goals,” says NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver.

“NASA’s partnership with Bigelow opens a new chapter in our continuing work to bring the innovation of industry to space, heralding cutting-edge technology that can allow humans to thrive in space safely and affordably.”

The BEAM is scheduled to launch aboard the eighth SpaceX cargo resupply mission to the ISS, currently planned for 2015. It will be installed on the aft port of the Tranquility node, using the station’s robotic arm.

Once it’s there, the station crew will ‘blow it up’, activating a pressurization system to expand the structure to its full size using air stored within the packed module.

During the two-year test, station crew members and ground-based engineers will gather performance data on the module – including its structural integrity and leak rate. They’ll also look at how radiation and temperature changes compare with traditional aluminum modules. After the test, the module will simply be thrown away, burning up on re-entry.

“The International Space Station is a uniquely suited test bed to demonstrate innovative exploration technologies like the BEAM,” says William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for human exploration and operations at NASA.

“As we venture deeper into space on the path to Mars, habitats that allow for long-duration stays in space will be a critical capability. Using the station’s resources, we’ll learn how humans can work effectively with this technology in space, as we continue to advance our understanding in all aspects for long-duration spaceflight aboard the orbiting laboratory.”