After spending several hours on Thursday morning unsuccessfully blowing up an expandable module attached to the International Space Station, NASA astronaut Jeff Williams and a team of engineers in Houston decided to postpone operations for a day. Williams summed up the effort by saying, “That’s space travel.”
The first steps in the process of expanding the Bigelow Aeropace habitat from 5ft 7in to 14ft have gone well. But when Williams opened a valve to allow air to flow into the module, the pressure inside began to build faster than expected, and the habitat expanded only very slowly. When Williams stopped and then repeated the valve opening process four more times, the same abnormal pressure rise occurred. After engineers consulted on the ground, they decided to postpone expansion efforts until Friday morning at the earliest.
Teams from NASA, who paid Bigelow $17.8 million to test the concept, and Bigelow are expected to meet today to study data from the expansion attempts, determine what went wrong, and then make a decision about whether to then don’t continue from Friday.
There is a lot of interest in the aerospace community, as well as Congress, in Bigelow’s project as NASA looks to develop new types of habitation modules for deep space exploration. Lacking a rigid structure, inflatables can be folded within the limited diameter of a missile fairing. Once in space, they can be expanded to create a huge amount of volume. There are also significant mass and possibly cost savings.
Bigelow already has plans for private space stations and much larger modules, starting with a 330 cubic meter module, but first it must prove to NASA – and the rest of the world – that inflatables can be safely deployed and inhabited. It will get another chance on Friday.