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BEAM module
NASA astronaut Jeff Williams works inside the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM, the newest addition to the International Space Station. (Credit: NASA TV)

Nine days after the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module was blown up to its full volume, astronauts entered the bedroom-sized BEAM compartment for the first time today and started hooking up the utilities.

NASA astronaut Jeff Williams reported that the BEAM’s interior looked “pristine.” It was chilly inside, but there were no signs of condensation on the walls. The temperature was about 44 degrees Fahrenheit at the module’s bulkhead, as expected, according to readings received by ground controllers at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

Williams and Russian crewmate Oleg Skripochka took air samples, checked sensors, measured the module’s dimensions and began hooking up air ducts. Then they floated back through the hatch and closed the door. The job will continue over the next couple of days.

BEAM will be tested over the next two years to determine how well the fabric-covered structure withstands the barrage of space debris and radiation as well as the orbital temperature swings from sunlight to shadow. For most of the time, the module will just sit locked and empty.

At the end of the experiment, the 13-foot-long pop-up room will be jettisoned into space, to burn up during atmospheric re-entry. But BEAM is expected to blaze a trail for a new generation of modules that can be flown into space in a compact configuration, then unfolded into spacious habitats for use in Earth orbit or deep space, on the moon or on Mars.

BEAM was built for NASA by Nevada-based Bigelow Aerospace under the terms of a $17.8 million contract. In April, Bigelow and United Launch Alliance announced plans to launch a module in 2020 that can expand to provide 20 times as much space as BEAM. That module, known as the B330 because it can grow to a volume of 330 cubic meters, may or may not end up being connected to the International Space Station.

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