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BEAM module
The Bigelow Expandable Space Module, or BEAM, is designed to expand to twice its folded-up length, but during an initial attempt, it stretched out just a few inches. (Credit: NASA TV)

Update: NASA will make its second attempt to inflate the Bigelow Expandable Space Module starting at around 6 a.m. PT Saturday. More details below. 

A multimillion-dollar pop-up room that NASA sees as the future of space habitats expanded just a few inches before the experiment fizzled at the International Space Station on May 26. The space agency said it would try again to deploy the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM.

BEAM was developed by Nevada-based Bigelow Aerospace under the terms of a $17.8 million contract with NASA, and sent to the station last month in the unpressurized “trunk” of a SpaceX Dragon cargo capsule.

The technology takes advantage of a concept that NASA developed in the 1990s. Bigelow Aerospace, founded by real-estate billionaire Robert Bigelow, licensed the concept and tested it with two free-flying modules that have been launched into orbit over the past decade.

After BEAM’s arrival at the space station, astronauts used the station’s robotic arm to hook up the folded-up module to a port on the Tranquility mode. On May 26, the crew tried releasing air into the module to expand it from about 7 feet to 13 feet in length. The module pushed out about 5 inches, but then it stopped. After a couple of hours of effort, NASA called off the attempt.

“Thanks for all your patience today, and we’ll hope for better luck tomorrow,” Mission Control told NASA astronaut Jeff Williams.

“Well, these are the kinds of things the team is up for the challenge for,” Williams replied. “It’s space business.”

Engineers from NASA and Bigelow Aerospace analyzed data from the attempt to figure out what went wrong, the space agency said in a status report. NASA initially said the next attempt could come as early as today, but then it ruled out making another try so soon.

Before last month’s launch, NASA space station program manager Kirk Shireman told reporters that “humans will be using these kinds of modules as we move further and further off the planet, and actually as we inhabit low Earth orbit.”

Days afterward, Bigelow Aerospace and United Launch Alliance announced plans to launch a significantly larger expandable space module into orbit in 2020.

Update for 6:30 p.m. PT May 27: NASA officials said that friction between the layers of BEAM’s super-strong fabric probably kept the chamber from expanding as expected.

The long delay in launching BEAM kept the module packed tight for longer than intended, which may have contributed to the fabric’s stiffness, officials told reporters today during a teleconference.

NASA will try once more to inflate the module starting at around 6 a.m. PT Saturday, the space agency said in a blog posting. Giving the fabric time to relax may boost the chances of success. But if the second try doesn’t work, NASA will put the operation on hold for a few days and proceed with other previously planned activities before trying a third time.

This story was first published at 10:29 a.m. PT May 26 and has been updated since then.

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