Bucky Fuller once asked Norman Foster: "How much does your building weigh?" It's an important question on earth but it's an absolutely critical one in space, where it costs $ 10,000 per pound to get up to the International Space Station. That's why the launch today of the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) is so interesting and important. It's lighter, takes up less space, is as resistant to debris as other parts of the space station, and Sandra Bullock would not have clonked her head nearly so hard had she been in it instead of the solid parts.
Bigelow isn't saying what the BEAM is made of, but this technology used to be owned by NASA and according to Associated Press, it used Nextel, a ceramic woven fabric made by 3M, Kevlar, foam and other fabrics.
Expandable habitats like BEAM, officials noted, need to be just as strong — or stronger — than the standard metal cylinders that make up the current space station. BEAM has proved to be equal or better against space debris than metal, said NASA project manager Rajib Dasgupta. Bigelow goes as far as to say: “The aluminum cans are antiquated.”
They go into a bit more detail at the Planetary Society.
Some BEAM specifics are proprietary. During the conference call, Lisa Kauke said she couldn't reveal the composition of the wall material, or even how thick the module was. [the Bigelow site suggests 18"] There is, apparently, no peer-reviewed data beyond NASA on how well the module can withstand debris strikes. In fact, when asked what would happen if the module was punctured, NASA's answer was clear: that won't happen.
"Basically, nothing is going to happen," Rajib Dasgupta said. "BEAM has a very robust debris protection layer within its shell. Debris will not penetrate the structural layer of BEAM—we have tested it extensively. BEAM actually can resist space debris and micrometeorite orbital debris to the same extent that any other ISS module can."
Often when we do stories about space, we get the old "why is this on TreeHugger?" question. However this is one that there are clearly obvious green benefits. Less weight means less fuel, and the Falcon rockets run on not so green kerosene.
It is also a lesson in minimalist design going right back to Bucky Fuller: what's the most efficient and lightest way to enclose a volume? A sphere, which is natural for an inflatable. And since everything in space is pressurized, it makes so much sense to put that air to work.
But this miracle fabric might make sense on earth too; it sounds like a bulletproof insulating shell for either inflatable homes or perhaps a new high tech yurt. Another great space program spinoff in the making. Raise a glass of Tang and toast the BEAM.
They knew all about inflatable satellites back in the sixties when they launched the Echo; according to Alexis Madrigal in the Atlantic, " The reason for using inflatable craft is simple: they're light, which meant that you didn't need as much thrust from your rocket to get into orbit." And seriously, they called them Satelloons.