For many years, space hotels have been a constant topic in science fiction movies depicting life in the near future. With the appearance of Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), space hotels may not end as just fiction, but instead become a reality in future generations. When Kate Rubins, a National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) astronaut residing in the International Space Station (ISS), tested BEAM to check its potential as a possible residential unit on September 29, interest on BEAM in becoming a reality increased again. BEAM has proven to show great possibility in developing as a space hotel in the future. Therefore, the Sungkyun Times (SKT) introduces the role and necessity of BEAM to the readers and provides information, which may shed a new light upon the space tourism industry in the far future.
BEAM: What is it?
According to Bigelow Aerospace, an American space startup company that constructed the BEAM, BEAM is an experimental program developed under a NASA contract in an effort to test and validate expandable habitat technology. In other words, BEAM was invented for residential purposes in space with foldable structures similar to that of a tent. Due to BEAM being an expandable module, air must be inserted to expand BEAM to its full size. The volume of BEAM is 3.6 ㎥ when folded and 16 ㎥ when it is fully expanded, which is in average the size of a regular household room. As BEAM can only be used after it has expanded to its full size, its interior cannot be assembled on Earth, which is a disadvantage. As a result, complex arrangements of devices and internal wiring are impossible, limiting BEAM’s use to only residential purposes.
Various Features of BEAM
BEAM has more advantages than disadvantages. Firstly, BEAM has a light weight of 1.4 tons, which means that it can be easily transported to space with rockets without increasing the cost of transportation or requiring rockets with better propulsion. BEAM has a similar weight to geostationary orbits such as communication, broadcasting, and weather satellites, which can weigh up to one to 1.5 tons, meaning that when people want to launch BEAM to add more shelters, they can do so with current technology. Secondly, BEAM is a good example of how the space industry can also be sustained without depending on the national government. Researches or experiments related to space have long relied on national governments, thus causing difficulties in trying new and various innovational methods. BEAM, however, illustrated that the space industry can now develop without the help of the national government. It implies that the growth of commercial use of space is possible. Accordingly, Bigelow Aerospace spent $290 million on the space industry, encouraging commercial growth of the space industry. Thirdly, BEAM is constructed specifically to fit the external docking module device of the ISS, which allows BEAM to be installed right away.
|BEAM Expansion / spaceflight101.com|
* For a brief introduction on ISS, according to NASA, ISS refers to a large spacecraft that orbits around Earth and serves as a residential and laboratory site for astronauts.
With the existence of ISS, why do we need BEAM?
The maximum number of astronauts the ISS can accommodate is limited to only six people. Many shelters were needed for more astronauts, but was inefficient to establish rooms in the ISS directly, since it requires a great deal of time and money. On the other hand, installing BEAM is relatively cheap and efficient because it can provide shelters by simply being launched and inflated. Additionally, NASA focused on BEAM’s role in sending humans to Mars. With modern technology, it would take about two to three years to travel back and forth from Mars, which is a considerably long time to travel considering the small size of current spacecrafts. BEAM, as many scientists have predicted, could become a stable shelter for many astronauts to rest during the long journey to Mars.
How BEAM Was Invented
In order to send an object up to the ISS, a space shuttle must be launched. Therefore, researchers started to think about specific types of shelter that could be stored in space shuttle storages while also procuring a large space for residential purposes. As a possible solution, they explored the idea of expandable residential space. NASA’s first concept upon this new idea was TransHab, a habituation module, divided into three floors. The first floor consisted of a kitchen and a cafeteria. On the second floor, resided a bedroom that could accommodate up to six people. Finally, on the third floor, there was a gym and a place for education. Unfortunately, NASA could not develop TransHab because it faced opposition from the United States (US) Congress. The US Congress was reluctant in funding the large amounts of money that NASA requested for developing TransHab, causing NASA to cease their work due to lack of budget. NASA, however, did not give up, instead opting to search for private companies that would invest in the project. Finally, Robert Bigelow, who was operating Budget Suites of America at the time, became fascinated by NASA’s project and bought the technology patent. Bigelow started to dream of promoting space hotel industries, and thus founded Bigelow Aerospace as a space technology startup company with the goal of making habitable space stations. Project TransHab was foundered, but Bigelow Aerospace invented BEAM instead. BEAM was first transferred by the Dragon spacecraft, a free-flying spacecraft, on the eighth resupply mission to the ISS on April 8, 2016. It took about seven hours for BEAM to expand to its full size and be successfully installed on the ISS.
|BEAM Attached to the ISS / bloomberg.com|
The Future of BEAM
BEAM’s Future Tasks
Starting from 2016 to 2018, BEAM is expected to be tested on whether it is suitable for accommodation in space or not. Astronauts will routinely enter BEAM and observe its performance for future habitation systems. The main factors that will be tested during this period are BEAM’s performance on protecting people from the extreme thermal environment in space and its reactions toward micrometeoroids, and orbital debris, which also includes fragments of rockets or satellites. Moreover, in space, the cosmic ray levels are 50 to 100 times higher than of Earth, increasing the chance of cancer. In order to be safe from cosmic radiations, BEAM’s surface is made up of Kevlar, which is effective in blocking such radiation. On September 29, the test was held to examine various sensors and check data related to BEAM’s role as a residential place.
Prospect of BEAM
BEAM can be used as a commercial accommodation in space, which may become a catalyst for the space tourism industry. If BEAM performs favorably during the test years, it could also lead to the future development of expandable residential structures for astronauts traveling to the Moon, other planets, or even to places deeper in the universe. This is due to the fact that BEAM can be installed even in places where there are no preexisting infrastructures, and quickly and simply launched, if needed for more space.
Boeing and Lockheed Martin, US-based global security and aerospace companies, are planning to start a space industry business in the future with BEAM and aiming to create more advanced forms of BEAM in the near future. United Launch Alliance (ULA), a joint venture company established by these two companies, is planning to start a business of sending BEAM to space for commercial use starting from 2020. If ULA is to succeed, space tour would be commercialized and space hotels would no longer be part of fiction. After 2020, people visiting the ISS, the Moon, Mars, or even other, previously unvisited planets will no longer be a picture in a science fiction book, but can very well become a family photo. People residing in a hotel in space with their family can become reality.
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