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NASA inflates space pod for ISS astronauts

29 May 2016

Houston, you have an epic balloon room in space.

Astronauts aboard the International Space Station on Saturday inflated an experimental fabric module that may provide a less expensive and safer option for housing crews during long stays in space, a NASA TV broadcast showed.

NASA astronaut Jeff Williams led Thursday's operations to expand the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), which was built by US space company Bigelow Aerospace and launched to the orbiting lab in April in an effort to test and validate expandable habitat technology.

NASA paid $17.8 million (16.01 million euros) to have the inflatable chamber built, hoping that it could lead to the creation of an even bigger inflatable room at the space station.

Williams opened the valve 25 times today for a total time of 2 minutes and 27 seconds to add air to the module in short bursts as flight controllers carefully monitored the module's internal pressure.

As the module expanded, Williams reported hearing popping noises as internal straps used to maintain compression during launch pulled apart as planned.

NASA's conservative approach to inflating the module was to avoid the BEAM's aft bulkhead moving away too quickly from the station and then jerking back when it reached the module's full length, which would have imparted stresses on the interface between the BEAM and the station. As a result, NASA called off operations for the day and engineers depressurized the module Friday afternoon. When he was done, the BEAM had grown from its compacted 7 feet to 13 feet long (2.1 to 7 meters) and expanded from nearly 8 feet to 10.5 feet in diameter (2.4 to 3.2 m). But at launch, it was compressed into the space 7 feet long by 8 feet wide (2.1 by 2.4 m).

Expandable habitats' benefit lies in the little space they take up in spacecraft' cargo holds while providing greater living and working space once inflated.

With the BEAM inflation complete, NASA and Bigelow Aerospace will begin a weeklong series of leak checks.

An initial attempt to inflate BEAM on Thursday failed, most likely because of friction within the module's layers of fabric, foam and reinforced outer covering, NASA said.

The unexpanded Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) is seen attached to the Tranquility module on the International Space Station in this still image taken from NASA TV, Thursday. The leak checks should take about a week to complete, NASA added.

The Las Vegas-based Bigelow Aerospace has tested its expandable habitats in space, but never with human occupants.

Astronauts are expected to re-enter the module several times a year throughout the two-year technology demonstration to retrieve sensor data and assess conditions inside the unit, including how well it protects against space radiation, NASA said. "Everything will influence the design and operation of expandable habitats in the future".