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BEAM module
A camera on the International Space Station shows the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM, after inflation. (Credit: NASA TV)

It took almost eight hours, but NASA accomplished the first expansion of a pop-up module at the International Space Station today, by inflating the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM.

BEAM was built for NASA by Nevada-based Bigelow Aerospace under the terms of a $17.8 million contract. It was sent up to the station last month in the unpressurized trunk of a SpaceX Dragon cargo capsule. In its folded-up form, the cylinder-shaped module measures only 7 feet long, but when it’s pressurized with air, it can grow to twice its size.

NASA astronaut Jeff Williams started the job of filling BEAM with air on Thursday, but it was tough going: The module grew by only a few inches before NASA had to call off the operation for the day.

Mission managers surmised that the reinforced fabric on BEAM’s exterior had gotten stiff during prolonged storage. That led to “increased friction between the various layers … which is possibly causing this whole expansion process to just unfold a little bit slower than all of the initial predictions,” NASA spokesman Dan Huot said.

NASA let the fabric relax on Friday.

Today, the pace was just as slow as it was two days earlier, but steadier. Williams opened an air valve for as little as a second at a time under Mission Control’s direction. Over the course of seven and a half hours, he did 25 valve openings for a total time that amounted to around two and a half minutes. After each opening, NASA monitored the pressure inside the module and weighed the next steps.

During each round of inflation, the straps that kept the module folded up could be heard popping as they broke, almost exactly as if popcorn was popping at the space station. The fact that the expanding module looked a bit like a Jiffy-Pop popcorn bag added to the effect.

Once the module grew by 4 feet in length, tanks of compressed air inside BEAM were opened to automate the process and finish the job.

“A very successful day today, with the expansion of the first expandable human-rated habitat to ever be flown into space,” Huot said.

Over the next few days, the space station’s astronauts will conduct leak checks, and if the bedroom-sized module proves shipshape, they’ll open the hatch connecting BEAM to the rest of the orbital outpost.

This particular model is a test item, and it’s likely to end up as a place for the crew to relax. But NASA hopes BEAM will blaze a trail for future habitats that can be launched in their space-saving, folded-up configuration – and then unfolded in space, on Mars or on the moon..

Last month, Bigelow Aerospace and United Launch Alliance announced that they plan to launch an expandable module with 20 times as much volume as BEAM into orbit in 2020.

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