Bigelow Expandable Activity Module
(BEAM) is the first test module to ever attach to the space station. The prototype was one of the highly anticipated experiments SpaceX launched into orbit
earlier in April.
What is unique about this experiment is that it is an expandable habitat that may one day replace the metal structures that currently reside in space.
BEAM, created by Bigelow Areospace, will stay attached to ISS for two years. During that time, an astronaut will enter the bedroom-size habitat four times a year and conduct tests to see how well BEAM performs against solar radiation, space debris and temperature fluctuations.
NASA has an invested interest in BEAM's performance. The space agency is investigating new ways to keep astronauts safe and healthy during long space travel, especially as it plans to bring astronauts to Mars by the 2030s. Expandable habitats are an attractive option because they are lighter, easier to carry and have more room for astronauts to move around.
Having extra leg room is a luxury in space.
Billionaire businessman Robert Bigelow, the founder of Bigelow Aerospace, said his company has been very aware of crew comfort. They've had astronauts step inside prototypes of BEAM and its larger cousin B330. "Astronauts have said it has been great because of the size," Bigelow told CNN.
NASA has been clear that the next space station will most likely be a commercial station. Expandable habitats may be an option for building a new ISS someday, Jason Crusan, director of NASA's Advanced Exploration Systems, told CNN.
By 2020, Bigelow hopes to have an expandable space station in lower Earth orbit and beyond. "We have the architecture to launch on the moon, but our first step it to launch into lower orbit," Bigelow said.
So how does this connect to space hotels of the future? Bigelow, who made his fortune from the hotel chain Budget Suites, hopes expandable technology could one day be used for research and tourism trips to other planets.
He envisions the next space station as another destination for travelers.
In the meantime, BEAM will be inflated with air in May. If everything goes as planned, after two years the prototype will be released from the space station and harmlessly burn up in Earth's atmosphere.