For the first time, NASA astronaut Jeff Williams will step inside the International Space Station (ISS) inflatable module on June 6.
The mission is part of the technological demonstration of the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM). Astronauts will periodically enter the module to study and observe the possible benefits and problems that expandable habitats may pose during deep space exploration missions and commercial spaceflights in low-Earth orbit and Mars.
BEAM was launched on April 8 aboard the SpaceX CRS-8 and was then attached to the ISS' Tranquility Node after a week. In preparation for Monday's mission, the astronauts inflated the module to its full size last May 28 by filling it with air for more than 7 hours. After inflation, the module has a packed configuration of 565 cubic feet of volume and about 3,000 pounds of mass.
Williams will be the first human to enter the module where he will collect air samples, install ducting to help air circulation, set caps on ascent vent valves, take deployment data sensors and open pressure tanks manually. In the next two days, Williams will place sensors inside the module to help the space crew determine BEAM's reaction to space debris, micrometeoroids and radiation. The module's performance in the space environment will also be measured.
Even if the primary goal of BEAM is to provide a habitable capsule during spaceflights, the astronauts will not live inside the module yet. During its technological demonstration, the module will remain closed and astronauts will only enter it about three to four times annually to collect necessary data and check its structure. The results will be crucial for the design of future habitats.
"If BEAM performs favorably, it could lead to future development of expandable habitation structures for future crews traveling in deep space," wrote NASA in its information page.
The Bigelow Aerospace and NASA are planning to allow BEAM to re-enter the Earth's atmosphere in 2018.