Future space explorers are now one step closer to surviving in the harsh vacuum of outer space. The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), a privately-built prototype expandable module built by American-based Bigelow Aerospace and currently attached to the International Space Station (ISS), has been renewed by NASA to at least 2020.
Bigelow Aerospace based out of North Las Vegas, was previously issued a $17.8 million contract by NASA to demonstrate the BEAM technology in the early half of 2013. The BEAM was subsequently flown onboard SpaceX’s Dragon space vehicle and delivered to the ISS in April 2016, where it was installed on Node 3 Aft on the station using the Canadarm2 as part of a one-year contract. Since its installation, the space station’s crew members have entered BEAM on a dozen occasions to conduct radiation shielding experiments, install passive radiation area monitors, and initiate the routine collection of microbial air and surface samples to be sent back to the Johnson Space Center for scientific analysis.
According to a notification circulated on December 6 on the Federal Business Opportunities website, NASA will pay Bigelow an estimated $200,000 to provide sustaining engineering, anomaly resolution, engineering analysis, BEAM stowage, and life-extension certification to Bigelow. The fixed-price contract has provided for BEAM’s stay on the ISS for at least the next three years through to at least 2020.
The extended contract will allow NASA the capacity to sustain and utilize the BEAM to “stow ISS equipment and in addition to its use as a test-bed for new technology demonstrations, during and beyond the BEAM initial baseline period of performance”. NASA will also have the BEAM undergo tests during the period to see how well it blocks out environmental hazards including radiation, micrometeoroids, and other space debris.
The notification further outlined that “[c]urrent estimates are that BEAM will provide the government a minimum of 109 Cargo Transfer Bags (CTBs) of on-orbit stowage with a goal of 130 CTBs during its anticipated life” in addition to testing against environmental space hazards. “The use of the BEAM as part of a human-rated system by NASA will allow Bigelow Aerospace to demonstrate its technology for future commercial applications in low Earth orbit”.
If the BEAM successfully passes these tests, there is speculation that the technology could be used in a future modular habitat project, such as with the Deep-Space Gateway project. The Deep-Space Gateway project is a NASA-led, multinational undertaking involving several national space agencies, including Canada, looking at the possibility of building a crew tended spaceport in orbit around the Moon. The BEAM could provide a valuable addition to the project’s habitat module. Further into the future of space exploration, the BEAM could also be used, if passing its next set of trials, in the installation of a temporary base of operations on Mars.
Speaking with Aerospace DAILY, Robert Bigelow, company founder and president of Bigelow Aerospace, said the renewed NASA contract will cost Bigelow Aerospace triple to quadruple the $200,000 to support the refinements to the BEAM. “We will lose money on this, but we think the relationship is worth it”, Bigelow said.
If it means that individuals can protect themselves in outer space, then it would definitely be seen to be worth it for the future of space exploration.