The International Space Station was supposed to get the very first expandable space house up and running on Thursday, but when astronauts tried to inflate the structure, it wouldn't fill and expand, and the reason is still unclear.
The structure, formally known as the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (a.k.a. BEAM), has been attached to the hull of the ISS for about a month now without any issues. The plan is to have BEAM connected to the ISS for two years, during which this new type of habitat will be tested out by the astronauts to see if it does everything it's supposed to do, as we've previously written. When astronauts set out for Mars in the 2030s, the hope is they'll bring "expandables" like this one with them and use the structures to create more temporary living space as they travel and for shelter once they arrive on that planet.
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With all that in mind, the module has been designed like a very high-tech version of a bouncy castle. The BEAM prototype is a 10.5-foot-by-13-foot capsule that is supposed to hold up against solar and cosmic radiation, space debris, atomic oxygen, ultraviolet radiation and all the other potential dangers that can be found in space. Once the habitat is set up on the ISS, astronauts will attach monitors to see how the craft actually holds up in space.
But, of course, for all of that to happen, the prototype BEAM needs to actually expand. Initially, everything was rolling along smoothly on Thursday morning. But after ISS astronaut Jeff Williams started the expansion process, it quickly became clear that things were not going according to plan. The structure was barely inflating, while the pressure inside the expandable shot up fast.
After repeated starting and stopping, NASA finally called it a day, deciding to hold off on further attempts until the agency could figure out what went wrong. Now, people back on Earth are trying to determine what the problem is, according to NASA. Engineers have congregated at Johnson Space Center to evaluate the data from Thursday's failure and to "discuss a path forward" for the BEAM. If it looks like there's a chance the expandable will inflate the way it's supposed to, the ISS astronauts will try again on Friday morning. Otherwise, it seems the NASA equivalent of a bouncy castle in space won't be an inflated reality anytime soon.