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An artist's conception shows the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module attached to the International Space Station. (Credit: Bigelow Aerospace)
An artist’s conception shows the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module attached to the International Space Station. (Credit: Bigelow Aerospace)

For the first time, SpaceX is due to launch an entire room to the International Space Station – a room that can go into orbit folded up, and then be expanded like an accordion once it’s hooked up to the station.

The 3,100-pound Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM, is the primary payload for Friday’s cargo resupply mission. BEAM will be packed in the “trunk” of SpaceX’s uncrewed Dragon cargo capsule when it’s lofted into space by a Falcon 9 rocket.

Liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida is set for 4:43 p.m. ET (1:43 p.m. PT) Friday. Forecaster Kathy Winters said there’s a 90 percent chance of acceptable weather. “It’ll be a great day to launch a rocket,” she told reporters at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

NASA will live-stream countdown coverage starting at 3:30 p.m. ET (12:30 p.m. PT).

This mission promises to mark a couple of more firsts for California-based SpaceX, which has a $1.6 billion cargo contract with NASA. It would be SpaceX’s first launch to the space station since last June’s failure of a Dragon mission. The company traced the Falcon 9’s breakup to a faulty strut, and since the fix was made, the Falcon has launched three times successfully.

SpaceX also could reach a new milestone in its drive to improve rocket reusability. Last November, the company brought a Falcon 9 rocket’s first stage back for a touchdown on land for the first time. However, it hasn’t yet succeeded in its efforts to land the booster on an oceangoing platform. SpaceX will try again for an at-sea landing on Friday, just minutes after launch.

The autonomous drone ship, christened “Of Course I Still Love You,” will be sitting hundreds of miles out in the Atlantic, ready to serve as the landing pad. SpaceX wants to perfect the at-sea landing procedure because an on-land touchdown is possible for only about a third to a half of the Falcon 9’s missions, said Hans Koenigsmann, the company’s vice president for flight reliability.

An at-sea landing would be nice to have, because that could open the way for reusing Falcon 9 boosters and reducing launch costs. But it’s not required for mission success. The key objective is getting Bigelow Aerospace’s BEAM and the other cargo safely to the station. If all goes well, astronauts would use the station’s robotic arm to bring the Dragon in for its berthing on Sunday.

In its folded-up configuration, the BEAM module is just a few feet tall. But when it’s taken out of the Dragon’s trunk and attached to the station’s Tranquility node, it can be expanded to 13 feet in length and 10.5 feet in diameter.

Nevada-based Bigelow Aerospace, which is funded by real-estate billionaire Robert Bigelow, has been experimenting with expandable modules for more than a decade. Two of them were launched by Russian rockets and are still in orbit.

BEAM is Bigelow Aerospace’s most ambitious experiment to date, funded with $17.8 million from NASA.

“This type of architecture has never been flown before. … We’re not 100 percent sure of its behavior,” Bigelow said today. “It is a testing station. That is the whole point here.”

Over the course of two years, NASA will monitor how BEAM handles space radiation, micrometeoroid impacts and temperature swings in orbit. Then the structure will be jettisoned into space to burn up during atmospheric re-entry.

NASA expects to apply the lessons learned from BEAM to future modules that can go into space small and then be expanded to provide lots of living space.

“It is the future,” Kirk Shireman, NASA’s space station program manager, told reporters. “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. So I think it really is the next logical step in humans getting off the planet.”

Bigelow says more expandable modules could be put into orbit by as early as 2020 to serve as private-sector space stations, for use by commercial ventures or government-backed research programs. Someday, they might even show up on the surface of the moon or Mars.

BEAM isn’t the only payload going up on the Dragon. The craft’s pressurized compartment will carry about two tons of supplies, including a wide range of experiments. Here are a few of the highlights:

  • Genes in Space: This Boeing-backed student project will test a “miniPCR” device that should be able to analyze DNA samples in orbit. The experiment, designed by 17-year-old Anna-Sophia Boguraev, aims to determine whether the device can be used to study alterations in DNA that could affect the astronauts’ immune system.
  • Rodents on drugs: Researchers want to find out whether drugs can help mice counter bone loss and muscle wasting in zero-G aboard the station. The experiment could lead to new ways to head off those health problems for human spacefliers during missions to Mars.
  • Protein crystal growth: For years, researchers have been trying to determine if uniform protein crystals can be grown in the zero-G environment. If so, that could lead to the design of new types of protein-based pharmaceuticals. Two experiments on the Dragon are aimed at blazing a trail in structure-based drug design.
  • Fungi in orbit: Scientists are sending strains of fungus into space, in hopes that they’ll produce chemicals that could have medical applications when they’re stressed out. Previous examples of medicines extracted from stressed-out fungi include penicillin and osteoporosis drugs.
  • Space-grown veggies: Last year, the space station’s astronauts grew a strain of red lettuce that was bred in Oregon, marking the first time space-grown lettuce was consumed in orbit. This time, the astronauts will be tasked with growing a crop of Tokyo Bekana cabbage.

If the resupply mission proceeds on schedule, the Dragon would be unleashed from the station on May 11 and return to Earth, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Baja California.

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