STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
A prototype of what could be the next generation of space stations is orbiting Earth. It's different than some other spacecraft because it did not arrive in space fully assembled. It arrived folded up, like a product in a box, and only expanded to full size after reaching orbit. NPR science correspondent Joe Palca has this update on how the module is doing after a year in space.
JOE PALCA, BYLINE: The module is called BEAM, the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module. It's been attached to the International Space Station since April last year. Like all expandables, BEAM has one really desirable feature. It packed up small for the ride into space. And when it arrived, the space station crew pumped it up into something much bigger. Now, don't think BEAM is like a balloon that could go pop if something punctured it. NASA's Jason Crusan says there's a better analogy.
JASON CRUSAN: It's much like the tire of your car.
PALCA: Even with no air in it, a tire is still shaped like a tire. When BEAM unfolded on orbit, it adopted its more natural shape, something resembling a stumpy watermelon. And Crusan says even if it should lose its air...
CRUSAN: It will still have structure to it.
PALCA: Of course, NASA would prefer BEAM not lose its air. So there are many layers of shielding to prevent things like micrometeorites from poking a hole in it.
CRUSAN: We do believe we've taken at least one hit, very small in nature. And actually, we can't even visually see where it's at.
PALCA: Crusan says there was no loss of pressure from the hit. NASA isn't actually using BEAM for anything at the moment. It's there just to see how it behaves in space. But Crusan says the space station crew does go inside every once in a while to check on things.
CRUSAN: We've actually had up to six crewmembers at a time inside of it. It's about 15 to 16 cubic meters in volume inside.
PALCA: About the inside space of a small school bus. The original plan was to detach BEAM after two years and let it burn up as it re-enters Earth's atmosphere. But there's been a change.
CRUSAN: Because of its performance, and it's doing extremely well, there's really no reason to throw it away.
PALCA: Crusan says the plan now is to turn it into a kind of storage shed for the space station and to keep it there as long as the station continues to operate. The company that made BEAM, Bigelow Aerospace, has big plans for expandable modules. The B330 is 20 times larger than BEAM. I asked Bigelow president, Robert Bigelow, if the good performance of BEAM gave him confidence that the larger module would be successful too.
ROBERT BIGELOW: No, I worry too much.
PALCA: Unlike BEAM, which is basically just a big closet, Bigelow says the B330 is a real space station.
BIGELOW: It has two propulsion systems. It has very large solar rays, tremendous volume, a full suite of environmental control life-support systems.
PALCA: All things that have to work flawlessly if you want to keep a crew of humans alive and happy in space.
BIGELOW: That's why I walk around perpetually with a frown, you know (laughter). It's just because, you know, there's so much to think about and to be concerned about.
PALCA: Despite his concerns, Robert Bigelow says his new space stations may be on orbit before too long. His company plans to have two B330s ready for launch in 2020. Joe Palca, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF AMBASSADEURS'S "CRIMSON")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.