NASA's attempt at deploying the first inflatable habitat on the International Space Station failed yesterday because the habitat hit some higher-than-expected forces during its expansion, NASA officials said during a press briefing today.
NASA ended the attempt after two hours because the habitat, known as the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), failed to expand fully. Despite successfully completing the first three steps of the expansion, NASA hit a snag when it initiated manual expansion of the BEAM.
"We ran into higher forces than we believe our models predicted."
"We ran into higher forces than we believe our models predicted, and we approached pressures that weren't part of our models," Jason Crusan, director of Advanced Exploration Systems at NASA Headquarters in Washington, told members of the press. "The primary force that we believe that we are working against are friction forces between the fabrics. Those are the part that are most likely the contributing factor."
Now that NASA has a handle on what happened, its scientists will refine their models and plan around these unexpected forces. And this won't take too long; NASA will proceed with another pressurization attempt tomorrow, Crusan said. If the second attempt fails, it will deflate the BEAM and try again at a later date.
Had the deployment been successful, NASA would have spent the next two years checking to see if the BEAM is safe enough for astronauts to move around in. To do this, astronauts would have entered the habitat only three or four times a year, gathering data about its conditions each time. But yesterday's failure means that NASA will have to wait a bit longer to find out if the BEAM can be used to support astronauts' activities aboard the ISS. "We are confident that we will get it fully expand," Crusan said. "It's just understanding the forces that are needed to expand."
Compared to metal modules, expandable habitats are both lighter and smaller — which makes them easier to transport. When it's deflated, the BEAM is 7 feet long and 7.7 feet in diameter. But once deployed, the habitat expands to 13 feet long and 10.6 feet in diameter. And at 3,000 pounds, the BEAM also weighs about seven times less than the metal Unity module on the ISS.
NASA hasn't yet announced the exact time of tomorrow's attempt. But if the space agency pulls this off — and shows the habitat can protect against extreme temperatures, solar radiation, and space debris — it's possible that these expandable habitats will one day be used to usher in an era of private space hotels.