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SpaceX Dragon to 'BEAM' prototype habitat up to ISS

SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft will join Orbital ATK’s Cygnus spacecraft at the International Space Station for a first-time event this weekend. Video by Emre Kelly. Wochit

A bit like an air mattress you pull from the closet when guests visit, a prototype module set to launch Friday afternoon on a SpaceX Dragon capsule will inflate to its full size after arriving at the International Space Station.

The roughly 3,100 pound Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM, designed by Las Vegas-based Bigelow Aerospace, may offer a glimpse at the future of commercial space stations or deep space habitats for astronauts exploring the moon or Mars.

“It is the future,” said Kirk Shireman, head of NASA’s space station program. “Humans will be using these kinds of modules as we move further and further off the planet, and actually as we inhabit low Earth orbit.”

Poised for a 4:43 p.m. liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, the Dragon will be returning to flight for the first time since last June, when SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket broke apart roughly two minutes after launch.

Nearly perfect weather is expected for the blastoff from Launch Complex 40, and for viewing the rocket’s flight to the northeast.

“It will be a great day to launch a rocket,” said Kathy Winters of the Air Force’s 45th Weather Squadron.

The mission will be SpaceX’s fourth since the Falcon 9 returned to flight in December, and third of an upgraded, more powerful version of the rocket.

After the launch, SpaceX will attempt to land the rocket’s first stage on a ship down range in the Atlantic Ocean, continuing the company’s experimental efforts to recover and reuse rockets.

SpaceX said the booster possibly could have returned to land, like one did in December, but that an ocean landing — something the company has not yet accomplished — would be less difficult and good practice for several upcoming missions.

The Dragon is packed with nearly 7,000 pounds of food, supplies and experiments, almost half of which is accounted for by the Bigelow module loaded in the capsule’s “trunk.”

Made of layers of soft, reinforced materials around a metal core, the module builds upon technology NASA started developing in the 1990s as a potential space station crew quarters, before cancelling the TransHab program.

Once referred to as “inflatable,” the habitats are now called “expandable” to convey something more structured and less fragile.

“Inflatables makes you think of things like balloons,” said Jason Crusan, director, NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems Division. “An expandable structure is more like a tent. In a packed configuration, it fits neatly in your car and your backpack. When you go to a site and you set it up, you can open the windows, you can get in it and get out of it, it keeps its structure at that point.”

If you do imagine a balloon, think of one wrapped in a Kevlar-like vest, able to withstand high-speed strikes by space debris even better than metal hulls, said Robert Bigelow, the president of Bigelow Aerospace and owner of the Budget Suites of America hotel chain.

“It’s so incredibly strong, it will maintain its shape,” he said.

The technology makes it possible to fit a large living and working area inside a rocket’s nose cone, saving on space and possibly weight, without needing something like the space shuttle that launched U.S. modules to the ISS.

Once at the station, a robotic arm will extract the BEAM and install it to a port as soon as next week. Likely in May, an astronaut will press a button to begin deploying the module. Filling with air from the station and internal tanks, the BEAM will expand to about four times its packed volume, roughly doubling in length to 12 feet and adding several feet to reach a 10.5-foot diameter.

The module is equipped with sensors to measure forces during deployment, and radiation, temperature and debris strikes over a two-year period before the BEAM is expected to be jettisoned from the station. Astronauts may venture inside only a handful of times a year, to help set it up and check on it periodically.

Bigelow launched two previous prototypes to space in 2006 and 2007, but BEAM will be the first to interact with astronauts, helping to prove the technology’s viability. If NASA gives the OK, Bigelow said the module might support several unspecified commercial projects during its stay on ISS.

Bigelow hopes the demonstration helps position the company to deploy two much larger B330 habitats, each 20 times larger than the BEAM, by 2020.

“We are in the early phase of a new kind of spacecraft that offers a lot of promise,” said Bigelow. “We’re anxious for this project to be launched and for it to be successful, and then we can start working on the next iteration of the next spacecraft.”

Contact Dean at 321-242-3668 orjdean@floridatoday.com. And follow on Twitter at@flatoday_jdeanand on Facebook atfacebook.com/jamesdeanspace.

Launch Friday

Mission: SpaceX’s eighth ISS resupply mission for NASA 

Rocket: SpaceX Falcon 9

Spacecraft: SpaceX Dragon cargo capsule

Launch Time: 4:43 p.m.

Launch Complex: 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station

Weather: 90 percent “go”

Join floridatoday.com at 3 p.m. for countdown chat and updates, including streaming of NASA TV’s launch coverage beginning at 3:30 p.m.

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