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Payloads that can be sent into space have traditionally been limited by cost and size. Items that were to be sent to the International Space Station had to be fit into rockets, and the ISS had to be constructed with a series of small connected modules.
A half century ago, NASA considered launching inflatable spacecraft that could be packed into small rockets, carried into space, and then inflated. The experiments were stopped after Congress cut funding for the project.
Bigelow Aerospace has revived the idea. The $17.8 million Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) will be transported inside the unpressurized trunk of a SpaceX Dragon capsule and carried to the ISS. The International Space Station’s robotic Canadarm2 will attach the BEAM to an airlock on the Tranquility module, where it will be inflated.
The BEAM has an internal volume of 16 cubic meters, which is large enough for one astronaut to work. It will be attached to the ISS for two years, but it will be sealed off most of the time and used to store instruments. Astronauts will check it once or twice a year to make sure it is not leaking, irradiated, or malfunctioning.
NASA will use the BEAM to measure radiation levels and compare them to the rest of the International Space Station to figure out how safe it is for humans. It will also allow Bigelow to see how its modules perform in low-earth orbit, which could have implications for telecommunications satellites.
If the BEAM is used successfully, Bigelow will launch an inflatable space station after 2016 built around its larger BA 330 module, which has 330 cubic meters of usable space. It will be completely self-contained and as safe as or safer than the ISS in terms of protection from impacts and radiation.