Space travel is a costly expenditure to undertake, and can become a failed mission very easily. Case in point would be the attempted launch of the Falcon 9 in June 2015, in which the failure of a strut in the upper stage caused the entire setup to go up in flames. This was the seventh failed attempt by SpaceX to perform a cargo run for NASA, per the agency’s Commercial Resupply program. Now, however, there is a very promising ray of hope with the new, upgrade Falcon 9, which launched without issue on April 8, carrying the Dragon vehicle.
The remarkable part of this launch, though, was the successful landing of the rocket booster on a robotic drone ship by the name of “Of Course I Still Love You” (This ship, along with it’s twin “Just Read the Instructions”, are named in honor of sci-fi author Ian M. Banks). The Falcon 9 was able to land on a football-sized area of space with no damage to itself or the drone, marking a great advancement in the field of space travel and exploration. Despite earlier failed attempts, this one success is very cost-friendly, as it means that the booster can be reused again, instead of paying for a new one to be built from scratch. The celebrated touchdown is not the only point of remark on this mission though. Aboard the vehicle Dragon, which is set to dock at the space station on April 10, is an innovative new cargo that could potentially become one of the steps in commercializing space, called the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM). While initially similar in appearance to a parachute, the BEAM can expand to more than five times its compressed volume and form a suitable habitat for space living.
The plan is to attach the BEAM, located in the trunk of the Dragon, to the Tranquility Node on the station, and become the first expandable habitat to be occupied in space. The astronauts will pass in and out of the habitat during its two-year tenure to test the functionality of the BEAM, and hopefully report back good results. BEAM is the brainchild of Bigelow Aerospace, owned by entrepreneur Robert Bigelow, who bought the rights to NASA’s TransHab, a similar undertaking to BEAM in the 1990’s, which unfortunately never got farther than the planning stage. However, the most recent reincarnation has Bigelow in high hopes for the future of space occupation, hopes which includes having two station-size inflatables launch-ready by 2020, followed by plans for inflatable moon and perhaps Mars bases in the future.
Besides the BEAM, the Dragon also has an additional cost saving feature; the ability to return through Earth’s atmosphere without burning up, carrying important scientific samples from the One-Year Mission, among other things.
Needless to say, everyone involved is highly optimistic about the future, SpaceX in particular confirming they are aiming to increase the yearly launch total, with the end goal being launching every other week by the end of the year. The next scheduled launch is near the end of April, with a following one in the beginning of May.
The BEAM is set to be inflated in May, about a month after docking, but will hopefully provide the results needed to take a step forward towards the future of space travel. Until then, we can only wait for the expectantly successful conclusion of the experiment.
UPDATE: The BEAM install and inflation took place on May 26 and hit a few snags. Here is more about the latest on the BEAM from a Nasa Press Release