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The ISS’s New Expandable Module Is Just the Beginning of a Cushy Space Future

55 years ago, Yuri Gagarin traveled to space in a rickety metal globe. Space travelers of the future may have cushy inflatable pads.
Concept art of expanded BEAM module. Image: NASA

Fifty-five years ago today, Soviet cosmonaut and all-around lovely person Yuri Gagarin became the first human ever to venture into outer space. To commemorate this historic voyage and celebrate the gains made in crewed spaceflight since, the United Nations enshrined April 12 as the International Day of Human Spaceflight in 2011. After all, shooting people off our planet in giant combustible devices is one of humanity's greatest ongoing endeavors, and deserves its own cozy spot on the calendar.

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To that point, it's astonishing to reflect on how much has been achieved in human spaceflight since Gagarin's first foray in orbit with the iconic Vostok spacecraft. In just over a half-century, humans have left footprints on the Moon, performed dozens of spacewalks and thousands of experiments, and constructed two continuously inhabited space stations in low Earth orbit.

On top of that, this year's International Day of Human Spaceflight coincides with the delivery of the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) to the International Space Station (ISS).

Developed by the private company Bigelow Aerospace under a NASA contract, BEAM is a crucial flight test of expandable habitats for humans in space.

Dragon arrives at ISS on Sunday. Video: NASA/YouTube

The module's safe arrival at the ISS on April 10, aboard SpaceX's Dragon capsule, represents the latest step towards more affordable and flexible architectures for human spaceflight, which the company hopes will eventually culminate in an independent commercial space station, and even expandable habitats on the Moon, Mars, and other planetary bodies.

"It's a terrific moment for the company, for NASA, for SpaceX, and the first step on a journey," Mike Gold, Bigelow Aerospace's director of DC operations and business growth, told me over the phone.

"We're very much looking forward to the historic moment [when] an expandable habitat will be attached to the International Space Station for the first time, and when an astronaut actually enters an expandable habitat for the first time," he continued. "It will be a significant moment not just for Bigelow Aerospace, but for the technology of expandable habitats systems."

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The plan from here is to transfer the BEAM from the trunk of the Dragon capsule to the ISS's Tranquility node on Saturday, April 16. The module, which is crafted from layers of Kevlar-like fabric bookended by two metal bulkheads, is stored in a compact configuration, like a packed tent.

Once it is acclimated to the thermal environment of the ISS, the BEAM will expand from its current dimensions of 2.16 meters (seven feet) in length and 2.36 meters (7.75 feet) in diameter to its pressurized size of four meters (13 feet) long by 3.23 meters (10.5 feet), with adds up to a living space of 565 cubic feet.

This deployment is expected to take place in May or early June, with astronauts venturing into the BEAM for the first time roughly a week after the expansion has been completed. This cushy new hangout spot for the ISS crew will be attached to the ISS for about two years, if everything goes to plan, during which time it will be evaluated across several metrics, including radiation resistance, mechanical durability, and long-term leak performance.

The lessons gleaned from the module's tenure on the ISS will then be integrated into the development of Bigelow Aerospace's future expandable spacecraft—including the B330, which is shaping up to be the company's flagship vessel. Named after its cubic volume of 330 meters (11,650 cubic feet), the B330 is designed to house up to six astronauts, and could be used as an ISS attachment like BEAM, or as a building block for autonomous spacecraft consisting of multiple linked B330 modules.

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B330 concept. Image: Bigelow Aerospace, LLC

Indeed, Bigelow Aerospace plans to eventually use these scalable habitats to construct a commercial orbital space station, or even to establish crewed bases on other planets. "One of the great benefits of the B330 architecture is its flexibility and that the same basic system can be utilized for orbital activities, or transit to different celestial destinations as well as for celestial surface applications on the Moon, Mars, or other celestial bodies," Gold told me.

"We need to open up the benefits of human spaceflight to new countries, to new industries, and to new individuals," he said. "The democratization of space is absolutely a goal that these B330 habitats can enable."

The first test of B330 architecture in space is contingent on the development of NASA's Commercial Crew Program, which aims to bring crewed launches back to American facilities as soon as possible (currently, only the Russian Soyuz spacecraft is equipped to transport astronauts to and from the ISS). The exact timeline on this program is still hazy, and the first crewed flight tests will not occur until 2017 at the very earliest, and will possibly take several years to come to fruition.

Once that hurdle is cleared, however, Bigelow Aerospace can move ahead with the deployment of B330 modules in space, and perhaps even developing even larger units.

"We have discussed what's called the Olympus module, which would provide roughly 2,250 cubic meters of internal volume," Gold said. "So, that it is a gigantic spacecraft that certainly demonstrates the scalability of expandable habitats and would represent a single giant module or space station that could be used for a variety of purposes."

Overview of Bigelow Aerospace's future plans. Image: Bigelow Aerospace/YouTube

"We're also looking to broaden the number of countries that can participate in human spaceflight to include those that aren't part of the ISS, or that don't necessarily have a history of human spaceflight," he added. "For example, the United Arab Emirates has never flown a citizen in space, and countries like UAE or Singapore might like to do so if they could launch astronauts, particularly without breaking the bank."

Just as the BEAM will literally expand its dimensions, hopefully its descendents—like the B330 or Olympus module—will expand the reach and breadth of human spaceflight over the coming decades. So for this year's International Day of Human Spaceflight, here's to the coiled space tent currently packed in the Dragon's trunk, and to the habitats that follow it.