NASA to try again to inflate spare room in space

The unexpanded Bigelow Expandable Activity Module seen attached to the Tranquility module of the International Space Station on
The unexpanded Bigelow Expandable Activity Module seen attached to the Tranquility module of the International Space Station on May 26, 2016

NASA will try again Saturday to inflate an add-on room at the International Space Station, after the first attempt ran into problems due to too much friction.

The flexible habitat, known as the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), is part of an experiment to test expandable habitats astronauts might use on the Moon or Mars in the coming decades.

"We ran into higher forces than we believe our models predicted," Jason Crusan, director of Advanced Exploration Systems at NASA, told reporters.

"At that point in time we decided to stand down the pressurization operation," he said of the decision to stop after two hours on Thursday.

He added that "the primary force that we believe that we're working against is friction forces between the fabrics."

Bigelow, which developed the first-of-its-kind habitat as part of an $18 million contract with NASA, said it fully supported the decision to pause the expansion.

"The BEAM spacecraft has been in a packed state for a significantly longer time than expected," Bigelow said in a statement.

"It has undergone a tremendous squeeze for over 15 months, which is 10 months longer than planned. Therefore, there is a potential for the behavior of the materials that make up the outside of the spacecraft to act differently than expected."

Fully expanded, the module should reach a size of 13 feet long (four meters) by 10.5 feet (3.23 meters) wide.

The initial plan was for astronauts to venture inside multiple times over the next two years to take readings from sensors inside the pod and to test how well it might protect against space radiation.

NASA said that if the expansion runs into problems on Saturday, they may deflate the habitat and try again in the coming days.

"We are very confident that we will get it fully expanded at some point in time," said Crusan.

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© 2016 AFP

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May 28, 2016
Worst case, the folds suddenly pop free when being pressurized and the sudden shift rips something on the space station.

May 28, 2016
Friction. I wouldn't have expected that. Although, if they didn't factor shelf stability into the design, you gotta wonder what else they ignored. Corrosion? oxidation? fatigue? creep? stress cracking?

You'll have to call Feynman, everyone else will lie to you.

May 30, 2016
Well, if they don't already KNOW what their models predicted, then perhaps it would be a good idea to review them

Complex systems often use monte carlo modeling because they can't exhaust every possibility without exhausting the computer. In other words, they take a random sampling through the possible configuration space and simulate those samples.

You get a result that shows a distribution of potential outcomes, and you have to decide what is likely enough to be included and what is not. Therefore it's always somewhat arbitrary what the models actually predict.

The material models are also not perfect, and cannot be perfect because you can't possibly model the material down to the level of an atom to know e.g. how exactly a fold of rubber will polymerize and stick to itself.

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