NASA to make second attempt at inflating BEAM on Saturday

Computer rendering of BEAM being installed on the ISS(Credit: Bigelow Aerospace)

NASA will have another go at inflating the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) on Saturday morning. The second attempt at deploying the experimental habitat module attached to the International Space Station (ISS) will take place at 9:00 am EDT, when the station crew will again slowly introduce air into the balloon-like fabric structure in hopes it will expand properly.

Tomorrow's attempt follows Thursday's initial try when NASA astronaut Jeff Williams closed the ascent valves that kept the module at uniform pressure during launch aboard the unmanned Dragon cargo ship. He then used pyrotechnic charges to cut the restraining straps and unbolted the bulkheads on the collapsed fabric to allow it to expand. Williams then introduced small one to five second bursts of air to partly pressurize the module.

According to NASA, the anticipated 45-minute maneuver ran into several hours as the BEAM refused to expand properly. The amount of expansion and the pressure to volume ratio didn't match the models previously calculated and higher forces than predicted were generated, so the space agency and Bigelow Aerospace engineers decided to suspend operations.

The reason for the failure isn't known, but in a teleconference a Bigelow spokeswoman said one possibility may stem from the fact BEAM remained in storage for 15 months due to a delay in delivery after a Falcon 9 booster was lost in flight on June 28, 2015. During this time, the fabric in the module may have compressed on itself, causing more friction than expected. Because of this, the engineers instructed the astronauts on the ISS to depressurize the module this morning to allow the fabric to relax and resettle.

NASA says that the undeployed module poses no danger to the space station, nor will it interfere with crew activity this weekend. Though the exact steps are still being determined by NASA and Bigelow engineers, tomorrow's second attempt will use the same slow introduction of air as on Thursday.

NASA says that there's no hurry in inflating BEAM, so if Saturday's attempt isn't successful, the operation will be suspended and the module depressurized until later in the week to make way for planned robotic operations.

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