Prototype space station module inflated on NASA's second try

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NASA Expands Inflatable Habitat in Space for First Time

Astronauts aboard the International Space Station on Saturday inflated an experimental fabric module that may provide a less expensive and safer option for housing crews during long stays in space, a NASA TV broadcast showed.

Designed and built by privately owned Bigelow Aerospace, the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM, is the first inflatable habitat to be tested with astronauts in space.

Las Vegas-based Bigelow Aerospace previously flew two unmanned prototypes. Lightweight inflatables are far less costly to launch than traditional metal modules. They also may provide astronauts with better radiation protection.

NASA is looking at future inflatable modules to be used by crews on three-year missions to the planet Mars.

See photos of the new habitat:

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Experimental space habitat Bigelow Expandable Activity Module on ISS
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Prototype space station module inflated on NASA's second try
The unexpanded Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) is seen attached to the Tranquility module on the International Space Station in this still image taken from NASA TV May 26, 2016. NASA called off an attempt to inflate an experimental habitat attached to the International Space Station after the fabric module failed to expand as planned on Thursday. NASA TV/Handout via Reuters THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS
The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) is seen during a media briefing at Bigelow Aerospace in Las Vegas, Nevada, January 16, 2013. Astronauts aboard the space station will inflate early on Thursday a prototype expandable module, which will be tested for two years as a possible habitat for crews on long-duration missions around the moon or to Mars. Bill Ingalls/NASA/File Photo/Handout via Reuters FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
Bigelow Aerospace president Robert Bigelow, left, and NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver answer questions for the media during a news conference, Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013, in Las Vegas. NASA has awarded a contact to Bigelow Aerospace to provide NASA with a Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, a habitat module for the International Space Station. Pictured here is a one third scale model of the BA 330 module, a different module similar in function to what the new Bigelow Expandable Activity Module will be. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
This image made from video provided by NASA shows the inflation of a new experimental room at the International Space Station on Saturday, May 28, 2016. Saturday was NASA's second shot at inflating the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), named for the aerospace company that created it as a precursor to moon and Mars habitats, and orbiting tourist hotels. (NASA via AP)
This combination of images provided by NASA shows the inflation of a new experimental room at the International Space Station on Saturday, May 28, 2016. Saturday was NASA's second shot at inflating the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), named for the aerospace company that created it as a precursor to moon and Mars habitats, and orbiting tourist hotels. (NASA via AP)
NASA deputy administrator, Lori Garver, left, and Bigelow Aerospace president Robert Bigelow, pose for photos and video in front of the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module during a news conference, Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013, in Las Vegas. NASA awarded a contact to Bigelow Aerospace to provide NASA with the BEAM, a habitat module for the International Space Station. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
Bigelow Aerospace founder and president Robert Bigelow, listens to questions from members of the media during a news conference, Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013, in Las Vegas. Bigelow spoke about the company's new contract to provide NASA with a habitat module for the International Space Station. Pictured with Bigelow is a BA 330 module, similar in function to what the new Bigelow Expandable Activity Module will be. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
A model of a concept space station made with Bigelow Aerospace habitat modules is on display at the company's headquarters during a news conference, Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013, in Las Vegas. NASA has awarded a contact to Bigelow Aerospace to provide NASA with a Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, a habitat module for the International Space Station. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
A model of a space complex is on display during a news conference with Bigelow Aerospace president Robert Bigelow and NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver, Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013, in Las Vegas. NASA has awarded a contact to Bigelow Aerospace to provide NASA with a Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, a habitat module for the International Space Station. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
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Working from inside the space station, astronaut Jeff Williams began inflating BEAM shortly after 9 a.m. by opening a valve to release air into the module.

Williams told flight controllers he heard short popping sounds, which NASA commentator Dan Huot said were stitches inside the module ripping apart as designed when BEAM began to expand.

"That is good news," astronaut Jessica Meir radioed to Williams from Mission Control in Houston.

Over the next seven hours, Williams continued to feed bursts of air into BEAM until it gradually unfurled. Eight tanks of air inside the module then opened to fully inflate BEAM to the size of a small bedroom, a 10-fold increase in volume.

Williams and his crewmates will wait about a week before entering the module to install radiation, temperature and other sensors, NASA said.

An initial attempt to inflate BEAM on Thursday failed, most likely because of friction within the module's layers of fabric, foam and reinforced outer covering, NASA said.

"It's a learning process," Huot said. Everything will influence the design and operation of expandable habitats in the future."

NASA plans to keep BEAM attached to the station, a $100 billion research laboratory that flies about 250 miles (400 km) above Earth, for two years to see how it fares in the harsh environment of space.

Bigelow Aerospace aims to fly inflatable space modules 20 times larger than BEAM that can be leased out to companies and research organizations.

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