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Watch NASA Deploy the First Inflatable Space Station Module

A rendering shows the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module attached to the ISS.A rendering shows the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module attached to the ISS.
A rendering shows the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module attached to the ISS.Bigelow Aerospace

Update: The BEAM has now been successfully expanded and pressurized. According to Mission Control, humans will enter the new module in about a week.

Yesterday, NASA started the process of inflating the newest addition to the International Space Station.

That’s right—inflating.

The new ISS module is the BEAM, or Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, and it’s intended to transform from a kind of folded tube into a full-size space station module when filled with air. But yesterday’s attempt ran into a snag because, according to Bigelow Aerospace, the BEAM had been packed away too long, creating unexpected friction in the unit’s flexible exterior as it unfolded.

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The unit was still in fine shape, though, so today, NASA is taking another try at inflating the unit, and live-streaming the whole thing. (Update: The stream is over, but hopefully will be posted to Nasa TV).

NASA’s live stream of the expansion shows astronaut Jeff Williams (whose Twitter handle, excellently, is @Astro_Jeff) opening up a valve between BEAM and the ISS in bursts of as little as one second, then waiting fifteen minutes or more for data to confirm that the pressurization is going according to plan. As of this writing, progress seems slower than expected, and the pressurization may not be complete until tomorrow.

A few snags aren’t too surprising, though, since this is a first-of-its-kind mission.

The BEAM has several advantages over existing metal space modules. Most importantly, it’s much lighter, making it cheaper to get into space, or, eventually, to Mars. It may also, surprisingly, be more durable than hard-sided units, at least with regards to small orbital objects, which could bounce away instead of denting a metal shell.

The BEAM, which was launched on a SpaceX Dragon and installed on the ISS in April, will undergo two years of testing once it’s successfully deployed. Station crews will not fully use the unit, but will, according to NASA, “routinely enter it to take measurements” on things like temperature and radiation.

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Though it’s getting its first full-fledged deployment on the ISS (and is in part based on NASA patents), the BEAM is not a government project. Manufacturer Bigelow Aerospace, headed by hotel magnate Robert Bigelow, hopes the BEAM will become to cornerstone of the company’s own space stations, potentially including surface stations for the Moon and Mars.

But first comes the inflation, which we’re crossing our fingers will go off without a (further) hitch.