Friday, April 8, 2016

BEAM Prototype Habitat, Bigelow's Plans

The BEAM Bigelow Aerospace habitat module, will be launched toward the International Space Station (ISS) today: if all goes well.

BEAM is packed in the Dragon spacecraft's unpressurized section. This cargo run also carries supplies for the ISS crew, and for several dozen of the roughly 250 experiments planned for Expeditions 47 and 48. (SpaceX press kit)

After getting attached to the ISS and inflated, BEAM will mostly just sit there for at least two years: empty except when someone in the ISS takes samples and swaps out radiation sensors. I think that's a good idea, since BEAM is testing technology for Bigelow Aerospace rental properties in low Earth orbit.
  1. BEAM: a Bigelow Aerospace Inflatable Habitat Comes to the ISS
  2. Commercial Research in Orbit?
  3. Robert Bigelow: "Foretastes of the Space Age"
As I'm writing this, Thursday evening, says that SpaceX CRS-8 will lift off at 20:43 UTC Friday, April 8, 2016.1 SpaceX has a webcast at

Update 00:10 UTC April 9, 2016

The SpaceX first stage landed successfully, and the Dragon spacecraft is on its way to the ISS.

Philosophers and Engineers

(From NASA, used w/o permission.)
(Part of the International Space Station.)

I've mentioned the aeolipiles — steam-powered rocket engines — of Vitruvius and Hero of Alexandria before. (October 10, 2014)

About two millennia later, folks living north of the old Roman imperial frontier learned how to make steam engines that don't explode: at least not often. A little later folks started building spaceships, which raises an interesting point: why didn't Athens build space stations?

I think it has something to do with economics, and a lot to do with attitude.

I agree with folks who say that the ancient Greek upper crust didn't think much of manual labor: that they saw it as something slaves did. Small wonder their philosophers carefully avoided finding practical applications for their theories.

Romans didn't have quite the same delicate sensibilities. They were top-rate engineers, given the limits of their numbering system. Try dividing LCX by XVII some time, and you'll see what I mean.

I gather that Romans often recognized that they weren't as "cultural" as the Greeks: but if a wealthy Roman wanted culture, he could buy a Greek, so that wasn't much of a problem — for the Roman.

On the 'up' side, Roman slaves could earn their freedom and become Roman citizens: an idea the Greeks didn't adopt.

By the way: slavery is a bad idea, and we shouldn't do it.

Having private property is okay, and the universal destination of goods is another topic. But treating humans as property is emphatically not okay It's "...a sin against the dignity of persons...." (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2378, 2401-2406, 2414)

After about 19 centuries of reminding folks that loving God, loving neighbors, and seeing everyone as a neighbor2 is a good idea, a few countries stopped practicing slavery.

As I've said before, things often take time. Particularly when change means giving up long-established privileges. (July 5, 2015; January 18, 2015)

Where was I? Hero of Alexandria, steam power, Spartacus. Right.

Science, Pure and Otherwise

(From Bigelow Aerospace, used w/o permission.)
("...When fully expanded, the hull thickness will be approximately 0.46m (18in) and offer ballistic protection superior to that currently afforded to ISS. The hull will also feature at least four large UV protection coated windows that will offer unparalleled earth viewing from orbit...."
(Bigelow Aerospace))

I'm a Norwegian-Irish-Scots-American living in the Upper Midwest, so I'm neither ethnically nor geographically "Yankee:" but I think "Yankee ingenuity" is still a defining American trait.

I suspect the trait may be more common among first- and second-generation immigrants than among many 'real' Americans. When folks stop wanting to move to America, then I'll start worrying about my country's future, and that's yet another topic. (November 17, 2015; July 6, 2014)

I'll be talking about the Bigelow Aerospace BEAM module, and what that company may be doing in the next few years. It's an American outfit: but don't get the idea that aerospace enterprises are strictly "American."

I've talked about Reaction Engines Limited's Skylon project before. (May 2, 2014)

The last I heard, the Japanese Rocket Society's Kankoh-maru is still trying to get off the ground, financially and literally.

Starchaser Industries, a British firm, is hoping to get part of the nascent space tourism industry; Zero2infinity, a Spanish company, is developing high-altitude launching platforms; and ISC Kosmotras, an international outfit, is using modified R-36 missiles as satellite launchers.

ISC Kosmotras vehicles got the Bigelow Aerospace Genesis modules into orbit, and I'll get back to that.

We've long since gone past the point where space travel is "pure science," a strictly theoretical affair with no practical applications.

I see that as a good thing, but some have conniptions when business and science intersect.

Sometimes there's a real ethical issue buried under the rant. Sometimes — I'll let the Lemming, an online alter ego, speak for me:
"...The Lemming remembers watching a terribly serious thinker sputtering after the Russian space program launched a satellite.

His problem wasn't that the Russians had practical launch vehicles. He seemed offended because those people had put an advertisement on the rocket. Imagine!! That was an affront to science, apparently.

The Lemming's understanding of the situation was that the Russian space program was short on funds - and sold advertising space on their launch vehicle to help cover expenses. Which, to the Lemming, made sense.

Maybe it would be nice if exploration of space could be a 'pure' pursuit: an occupation of gentlemen; unsullied by mere commercial concerns.

The Lemming doesn't think that's how it's going to happen....
(Apathetic Lemming of the North (May 16, 2011))

1. BEAM: a Bigelow Aerospace Inflatable Habitat Comes to the ISS

(From Julie Jacobson/AP, via Wired, used w/o permission.)
("Bigelow Aerospace founder and president Robert Bigelow answers questions from members of the media during a news conference, Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013, in Las Vegas."
"NASA Is Finally Sending a Hotel Magnate's Inflatable Habitat to the ISS"
Sarah Scoles, Science, Wired (April 4, 2016)

"When humans leave Earth for good, they're going to need somewhere to stay. Somewhere spacious, and safe. Portable, but comfy. Lightweight, but robust to the dangers of space. Something like a big bouncy castle for kids, but built to house astronauts and solar system colonists and tourists looking for an out-of-this-world vacation.

"It sounds like a sci-fi fever dream, but it's becoming reality. On Friday, SpaceX will launch a so-called 'expandable'—a prototype called the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module—to the International Space Station. (ISS) It will remain there, attached to the Tranquility module, for two years. Bigelow Aerospace hopes its time in orbit will prove the technology worthy of inhabitants...."
Sarah Scoles did a good job of research, taking readers on a quick tour of inflatable satellites and proposed off-Earth business ventures — including the Echo Mylar balloons, Barron Hilton's Lunar hotel, and a Goodyear inflatable space station.

The hundred-foot-diameter Echo satellites made it into orbit, but the Goodyear prototype didn't. "2001: A Space Odyssey" featured a Hilton hotel in the (fictional) Space Station V, and folks stopped visiting Earth's moon after the Apollo 17 mission.

Scoles' assertion that America's Congress ordered NASA to abandon the TransHab project because "a new, airy space station" would add problems to the over-budget and past-deadline ISS is plausible. Whether or not it's true: I don't know.

Whatever Congress had in mind, "in the 2000 NASA Authorization Act, Congress canceled TransHab. The housing bubble burst," as Scoles put it.

Bigelow Aerospace bought NASA's TransHab patents.

I don't mind a bit: particularly since B.A. actually did something with the research.

Empty, Mostly

(From Bigelow Aerospace, via Wired, used w/o permission.)
"...For most of its stay, BEAM will be empty, except for the air it shares with the rest of the ISS. 'Currently there is no plan to use the BEAM module as a storage closet,' said Dasgupta. BEAM's empty space should have basically the same internal environment as the rest of the habitat. 'It might be a little cooler,' he said, by which he definitely meant a lot hipper, and also quieter because its walls absorb sound better than the station's metal.

"But four times a year, the station's astronauts will get to actually, you know, inhabit the place—for three hours at a time. With battery-operated flashlights, they will collect data about the module's temperature, pressure, general well-being, and radiation, and switch out radiation sensors. They will also swab samples of surfaces to see what weird life might be growing there, before going back to their regularly scheduled program and habitat.

"The balloon will protrude from the Space Station's side for two years. Then, the robotic arm will swing back around and unhook BEAM, its job complete. Cast into its own decaying orbit, the module will spiral back toward Earth, burning up in the atmosphere 290 days after its ejection...."
(Sarah Scoles, Science, Wired)
Bigelow Aerospace's Genesis I and Genesis II test modules have been orbiting Earth since 2006 and 2007, launched by ISC Kosmotras, a multinational commercial freight service using one-use converted Dnepr rockets.

We're still years — at least — from spaceplanes like Skylon, and I'm drifting off-topic.

Apparently BEAM's two-year scheduled attachment to the ISS is strictly a test of the tech's spaceworthiness.

I figure that keeping BEAM empty except for scheduled maintenance gives researchers 'clean' results: any changes will come from exposure of the outside to near-Earth space, or the inside's exposure to the ISS atmosphere.

Besides, at a tad over 400 kilometers, 250 miles, above Earth's surface; depending on comparatively untested tech isn't the safest option.

The half-dozen folks living and working there have other pressurized modules with a total volume about the same as a Boeing 747's. Considering that much of it is packed with equipment and supplies, it's probably not as spacious as it sounds.

2. Commercial Research in Orbit?

(From Biegelow Aerospace, via The Space Review, used w/o permission.)
("An illustration of Bigelow Aerospace's BEAM module attached to the ISS. While BEAM is a step towards commercial space stations, what types of customers they'll attract remains uncertain."
(The Space Review))
"The challenges of commercializing research in low Earth orbit"
Jeff Foust, The Space Review (April 4, 2016)

"On Friday afternoon, a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft is scheduled to launch to the International Space Station, the first resupply mission by the company since a June launch failure. Included in its cargo is the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), an inflatable (or expandable, as Bigelow Aerospace prefers to say) module that will be attached to the station. If all goes as planned, by late May the BEAM will be installed and expanded to its full size, enabling tests of the technology.

"Bigelow is just the latest in a wide range of companies to make use of the ISS for technology demonstration, satellite launches, and research of various types. Bigelow, though, has plans to develop its own space stations as well, and sees BEAM as the next step in those plans.

" 'A free flyer is absolutely a goal of Bigelow Aerospace, and the BEAM, which will be the first time that an astronaut steps inside an expandable habitat, is a very important milestone moving forward towards that vision,' said Mike Gold, director of DC operations and business growth, during a panel session March 30 at the National Academies that was part of a day-long examination of the commercial prospects for activities in low Earth orbit...."
Wikipedia's list of private spaceflight companies has separate lists for "Launch vehicles" and "Crew and cargo transport vehicles.

The former are mostly single-use expendable rockets; although it includes the SpaceX Falcon 9, which has a still-experimental reusable first stage. (December 24, 2015)

The latter includes (now-bankrupt) Rocketplane Kistler's K-1 planned reusable launch vehicle.

I'm not sure what the rationale is for placing vehicles in one or the other of those two lists.

Anyway, that Wikipedia page also lists Space mining and Space manufacturing separately: although Infinite Space Dynamics, Shackleton Energy Company, and Deep Space Industries show up in both. I talked about Deep Space Industries a few years back. (January 25, 2013)

Deep Space Industries' focus is on asteroid mining: which has the advantage of avoiding legal issues rooted in the Outer Space Treaty of 1966.

Shackleton Energy Company may be counting on world leaders to change their minds — or maybe they have really good lawyers. (February 5, 2016)

The Space Review's article focuses on "commercial prospects for activities in low Earth orbit."

Looking Beyond the Lab

(From Stephanie Schierholz/NASA, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(BEAM (Bigelow Expandable Activity Module) at Bigelow's Las Vegas facility last year (March 12, 2015))
"...What emerged from that discussion is that the technical infrastructure needed for performing research in LEO, particularly by people, is finally coming together. Orbital ATK and SpaceX have vehicles to transport cargo to and from the ISS that can also be used commercially, while Sierra Nevada Corporation is developing its own cargo vehicle that will be ready in a few years. Boeing and SpaceX, meanwhile, are making progress on commercial crew vehicles that are scheduled to make test flights next year. And Bigelow has its B330 modules that the company says will be ready once commercial crew systems enter service.

"What was less clear from that discussion, though, was the demand for those systems: who will want a commercial space station, particularly when the commercial viability of LEO research remains uncertain?

"NASA argues that it is trying to stimulate that demand now on the ISS, with the goal of having sufficient demand to support commercial suppliers by the time the station is retired in the 2020s. 'Private industry is the driver for the development and the sustainment of the supply,' said Sam Scimemi, ISS director at NASA Headquarters, describing the agency's vision for commercialization in LEO.

"The demand for those commercial facilities, Scimemi said, could include NASA, but only as one customer of many at most. 'We expect that the majority of the demand will be private-sector driven,' he said. 'The majority of the NASA focus will be on beyond low Earth orbit.'..."
(Jeff Foust, The Space Review)
I'm not surprised that "the commercial viability of LEO research" is problematical. There's not all that much demand back on Earth, at least not yet.

We didn't have Earth-based research parks until the 1950s. These days we've got hundreds, which sounds like a lot: but that's hundreds total on the planet, including about 170 in North America.

They're generally associated with a previously-existing university: and I'd be astonished if we're within a generation of seeing the first orbital university campus.

My guess is that folks who are "chasing long-held visions of using space not just for research but also for manufacturing" are on the right track.

This is still speculation, but we're discovering that some materials, behave differently in free fall:
"...Current technology indicates that a microgravity environment has enabled researchers to grow three-dimensional tissues that have characteristics similar to body tissues and to produce protein crystals to aid in novel pharmaceutical development...."
("Fields of Research," International Space Station Payload Information Source, via Internet Archive Wayback Machine)
I'd love to give examples of some specific drug that can only be made in low Earth orbit, or another manufacturing process that makes economic sense there. As far as I know, there isn't one. Not today.

"Needs" Change

(From Cmglee, Geo Swan; via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Orbits of GPS, GLONASS, Galileo, Compass (medium earth orbit) satellite navigation system, International Space Station, Hubble Space Telescope and Iridium constellation.)
"...'What can we not do without that we have to get from space?' asked Frank Culbertson, president of Orbital ATK's space systems division, about that search for a killer app for LEO research. 'We don't have that yet.'..."
(Jeff Foust, The Space Review)
"What we can not do without" has changed quite a bit since I started noticing things — communications satellites, for example.

The International Telegraph Union became a United Nations specialized agency in 1947. Now we're calling it the International Telecommunication Union, and one of its functions is sorting out disputes between folks who want their satellites in the similar orbits.

I remember when Telstar satellites were experimental, and when a live transatlantic broadcast was international news. We still don't "need" communications satellites: but we certainly notice when a live video feed from another continent isn't as crystal-clear as local coverage.

Weather satellites predate Telstar by a few years. Collecting data from remote areas, and Earth's ocean, helped make weather forecasting a whole lot more reliable than in my 'good old days.'

As with communications satellites, maybe we don't "need" accurate weather forecasts the way we need food and water: but knowing the odds that a tornado is coming is nice.

So is having National Weather Service who aren't afraid to tell us. I really do not miss the 'good old days.' (January 16, 2015)


(From NASA, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(BEAM mockup interior (2014))

Like most of the rest of the ISS, Bigelow's BEAM module has no windows: and doesn't need them, since it's there to 'flight test' Bigelow Aerospace inflatable habitat technology.

I'm fascinated by this sort of thing.

Your experience may vary: but if your day won't be complete without a learning more, I put a link list of resources at the end of this post.3

Here's an excerpt from a FAQ I didn't include in that list.
  • In its packed configuration, the module will measure approximately 8 feet in diameter.
  • In its expanded configuration, BEAM's internal dimensions provide 565 cubic feet of volume.
  • BEAM's mass is approximately 3,000 pounds.
  • BEAM is composed of: two metal bulkheads, an aluminum structure, and multiple layers of soft fabric with spacing between layers, protecting an internal restraint and bladder system. It has no windows.
  • BEAM will be attached to the aft section of the Tranquility Node on the International Space Station.
  • BEAM's mission duration is two years.
  • BEAM is outfitted with various sensors and radiation monitors.
    (Source: "BEAM Facts, Figures, FAQs," NASA (July 17, 2015))

3. Robert Bigelow: "Foretastes of the Space Age"

(From Michael Friberg, Bloomberg Businessweek; used w/o permission.)
("A cutaway showing the interior of the Olympus habitat, which has a volume more than double that of the International Space Station"
(Bloomberg Businessweek))
"A Las Vegas billionaire plans to build a real estate empire in space"
Adam Higginbotham, Bloomberg Businessweek (May 2, 2013)

"Robert Bigelow was no more than 9 years old when he heard his first atom bomb explosion. He was upstairs in his bedroom, in a two-story brick house in Las Vegas. There was a low rumble in the early hours of the morning; a bright flash seared the horizon. 'All of a sudden,' Bigelow remembers, 'it lights up like daytime.'...

"...As he grew up in the Las Vegas of the early ’50s—then still a small town—foretastes of the Space Age transfixed him: exotic jet planes screaming overhead from Nellis Air Force Base and stories of UFO sightings recounted by friends and family. At 12, Bigelow decided that his future lay in space travel, despite his limitations. 'I hated algebra,' he says. 'I knew I was no good at it.' So he resolved to choose a career that would make him rich enough that, one day, he could hire the scientific expertise required to launch his own space program. Until then, he would tell no one—not even his wife—about his ultimate goal. It took more than 40 years...."
Robert Bigelow is a few years older than I am, looks quite a few years younger, is a great deal richer. About the latter two: I don't mind.

Folks like him, Jacques Cousteau, Sir Goldsworthy Gurney, and Sir Isaac Newton are among the reasons I do not mind uneven distribution of wealth. As I've said before, being rich or poor is okay. What matters is what we do with our lives. (January 25, 2015; November 16, 2014)

Differences between folks isn't the problem: it's unjust differences. I've talked about the universal destination of goods, social justice, and Beaver Cleaver, before. (January 17, 2016; May 3, 2015)

Bigelow's sometimes called a "hotel magnate," which means that he owns Budget Suites of America: and has been developing hotels, motels and apartments since the late 1960s.

He's talked about hotels in space, maybe because that's likely to spark interest. He also sees other possibilities: like mining Helium-3 on Earth's moon. It's used in cryogenics and MRI machines, and (theoretically) could be used in fusion reactors — eventually.

The ESA and China have been talking about He-3 lunar mining:
Maybe that pesky Outer Space Treaty will finally get scrapped. Or ignored.

Space for Rent: Looking at Numbers

(From Michael Friberg, Bloomberg Businessweek; used w/o permission.)
("The B330 can be deployed by multiple launch vehicles and features an architecture designed with modular expansion in mind. A single B330 can be joined in orbit by multiple vehicles, in addition to other B330 and Bigelow Aerospace spacecraft."
(Bigelow Aerospace))
"...Although he'll be quite happy to sell habitats outright to his customers, he points out that for NASA—or the agencies of any other newly budget-conscious nations with ambitions beyond earth's atmosphere—leasing is by far the more affordable option. For only $51.25 million, Bigelow's sales brochure suggests, a client can travel to the Alpha Station and enjoy dominion over 110 cubic meters for 60 days.

" 'The main thing is trying to save them a lot of money on good quality hardware,' he says. Bigelow's intention is to become the first full-service landlord in space. 'Bring your clothes and your money. We provide everything else.'..."
(Adam Higginbotham, Bloomberg Businessweek)
Let's look at the numbers: 110 cubic meters, 60 days, $51,250,000 U.S. dollars. At first glance, that looks like a lot of money: and it is, for someone like me. We're making our own laundry detergent and growing produce out back to make ends meet.

But let's say that I want, or could use, two months in low Earth orbit; and had a company in Ohio with an annual revenue of between $10,000,0000 and $1,000,000,000.

That's a "middle market" company, according to Ohio State University's National Center for the Middle Market.

It's still a lot of money, but at middle market's high end, it'd be very roughly 1/20th of the company's annual revenue.

Let's see how much room that gets me. 110 cubic meters is just over 3,884 cubic feet.

A standard 40-foot intermodal container — that's one of those big metal boxes you see on container ships, railroad flatcars, or hauled by semitrailers — holds 3,040 cubic feet, or 86.1 cubic meters. That's about as much as a really small American studio apartment.

If it was job-related, I can imagine living in something that size for two months: even if equipment and supplies took up much of the volume. Bear in mind that I spend 12 to 14 hours a day at my desk, virtually plugged in to my computer. My idea of  'roomy' and yours may not be the same.

If Mr. Bigelow's "everything else" included air, water, food, power, and basic furniture, that $854.17 per day price tag doesn't seem so extravagant.

I checked, and that 'per day' rate is a bit less than I'd pay for one day at the Nemacolin Woodlands Resort (Pennsylvania) Chateau Lafayette Club Suite on a summer weekend or holiday.

I think Bigelow Aerospace may take off: literally and financially.

Even if that company doesn't, I'm quite sure that other folks will continue humanity's old habit of heading for the horizon:

1 I talked about UTC, 'Earth time,' last year. (July 10, 2015)

Briefly, "UTC" stands for Coordinated Universal Time, an acronym that happened when folks speaking French and English couldn't agree on an acronym.

UTC is based on International Atomic Time: a time standard set by the weighted average of over 400 atomic clocks in more than 50 laboratories at various spots at or near Earth's surface — coordinated by GPS and two-way satellite time and frequency transfer.

2 My faith's basic 'to do' list is quite simple. I should love God, love my neighbors, see everyone as my neighbor, and treat others as I'd like to be treated. (Matthew 5:43-44, 7:12, 22:36-40, Mark 12:28-31; Luke 6:31 10:25-27, 29-37; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1789)

Acting as if that's true: that's what gets hard.

3 Background, far from exhaustive from:

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Marian Apparition: Champion, Wisconsin

Background:Posts in this blog: In the news:

What's That Doing in a Nice Catholic Blog?

From time to time, a service that I use will display links to - odd - services and retailers.

I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.