NASA has just announced a $17.8 million dollar deal with private spaceflight firm Bigelow Aerospace to build and attach an inflatable private module to the International Space Station. The modules, called Bigelow Expandable Activity Modules (BEAM) would be used as a technology demonstration.
In a joint announcement released on Friday, January 11, a NASA official commented:
"This partnership agreement for the use of expandable habitats represents a step forward in cutting-edge technology that can allow humans to thrive in space safely and affordably, and heralds important progress in U.S. commercial space innovation," NASA deputy chief Lori Garver.
The short statement was followed by news that Garver and Bigelow founder and president Robert Bigelow will hold a joint event at Bigelow Aerospace in Las Vegas on January 16 to further discuss the ambitious BEAM project.
Bigelow has already launched two prototypes into orbit — the Genesis 1 in 2006 and Genesis 2 in 2007. Due to these previous test modules, NASA officials have said they believe once greenlit, the BEAM project could be in orbit in two years. Delivery to the ISS would come courtesy of an agency commercial cargo supplier.
While the exact details on the BEAM module will likely come on January 16, the Genesis modules are 14.4 feet long by 8.3 wide, with approximately 406 cubic feet of pressurized volume. Whether there are plans for astronauts to expand their usable space via BEAM, or whether space tourists will be the inhabitants has not yet been announced.
Bigelow Aerospace believes larger versions of these modules could one day be designed to link together forming its own space station. Even larger units call BA-330 modules — containing 330 cubic meters of usable internal volume are being eyed as a possible moon outpost.
This big picture plan would see several BA-330 modules linked in space and then flown to the moon's surface. There they would be covered with Lunar "soil" for protection from the extremes on the surface. From there inhabitants could safely set up shop.
Bigelow Aerospace clearly has plans to join the other commercial entities eyeing colonization, and the partnership with NASA to test the BEAM module via the ISS is a significant step in the right direction.
The January 16 joint event between NASA and Bigelow should shed further light on the scope and timeline of the BEAM module project.