After difficulties with the first attempt to expand a new room on the International Space Station, NASA had little trouble with Bigelow Aerospace’s inflatable module over the Memorial Day weekend.
On Saturday morning, NASA astronaut Jeff Williams allowed short bursts of air to escape into the module, allowing it to expand, as flight controllers at Johnson Space Center checked the module’s internal pressure. Then, after this initial, successful expansion, NASA pressed ahead and fully pressurized the module on Saturday afternoon.
When packed inside the trunk of a Dragon cargo spacecraft, the Bigelow module measure 7 feet long by 7.75 feet wide; when expanded, it measures 13 feet long and 10.5 feet in diameter, creating 565 cubic feet of space and weighing 3,000 pounds. If all goes well during this week with a series of leak and pressure checks, Williams could enter the Bigelow module as early as next Monday.
A preliminary NASA timeline suggests Williams could open the hatch around 2:15am ET on Monday morning, enter, and then spend a couple of days outfitting the hatch for long-term use on the station. This initial setup work will include installing a vent duct, downloading data from the three Deployment Dynamic Sensor units inside that recorded vibration data, and manually opening the valves on the air tanks inside the module to ensure they are emptied. He will also install radiation, impact detection, and temperature sensors before closing the hatch again.
If the Bigelow module holds up during the next few years that it is attached to the station, it could pave the way for larger inflatable modules on the international laboratory, as well as separate space stations and deep space habitats. Lacking a rigid structure, inflatables can be folded inside the limited diameter of a rocket fairing. Once in space they can be expanded to create a massive amount of volume. There are also considerable mass—and potentially cost—savings.
Eric Berger | ars technica