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On second try, NASA inflates experimental room on space station

The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM, barely expanded during Thursday's first inflation attempt. On Saturday, NASA tried again. 

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    In this frame from NASA TV, a new experimental room at the International Space Station partially inflates Thursday, May 26, 2016. NASA released some air into the experimental inflatable room, but put everything on hold when problems cropped up.
    (NASA TV via AP)
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NASA slowly inflated a new experimental room at the International Space Station on Saturday, with better luck than the first try two days earlier.

Astronaut Jeffrey Williams opened a valve and introduced 22 seconds' worth of air into the compartment, then several more seconds in brief bursts. Mission Control reported noticeable growth in the structure, the first of its kind for space fliers.

The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM, barely expanded during Thursday's inflation attempt. Experts believe the soft-sided compartment was packed up tight for so long before last month's launch that the fabric layers had trouble unfolding.

Pressure inside the chamber was relieved Friday to ease the friction among the multiple layers. That should allow it to stretch to its full 13 feet in length and 10 ½ feet in diameter — the volume equivalent to a small bedroom.

This time, Williams heard popping noises as pressure built up inside BEAM — like popcorn in a frying pan. That's actually good news; officials said it was the sound of internal straps releasing as the pod gained up to a foot or so in both length and girth.

Bigelow Aerospace provided this first inflatable room ever built for astronauts. NASA paid $17.8 million for the technology demo, which could lead to an even bigger inflatable room at the space station.

Hotel entrepreneur Robert Bigelow, who runs the North Las Vegas aerospace company, considers BEAM a test bed for future inflatable habitats for tourists orbiting Earth as well as astronauts on the moon or Mars. He's working to fly a pair of private inflatable stations in another few years.

Because expandable spacecraft can be compressed for launch, the rockets can carry more cargo, yet space travelers can still enjoy lots of room. The standard aluminum rooms that make up the space station — essentially fancy cans — can never be larger than what fits into a rocket.

The space station's six astronauts won't enter BEAM for at least a week, with the hatch remaining sealed. NASA wants to make certain it's airtight before letting anyone inside. Even then, it will be off limits most of the time given its experimental status.

BEAM — empty except for sensors — is supposed to stay attached to the orbiting lab for two years so engineers can measure temperature, radiation levels and its resistance to space debris impacts.

SpaceX delivered BEAM early last month, and it was installed on the outside of the 250-mile-high outpost. Launch delays kept it grounded an extra half-year.

As The Christian Science Monitor reported, there's a lot riding on a successful inflation. NASA's looking at a two-year research agreement and a potentially viable technology to aid deep-space exploration.

BEAM is a 3,086-pound space pod made of fabric and Kevlar-like materials, The Christian Science Monitor reported last month. At first, the pod is compacted to look like a scrunched 7-foot-long soda can, with a diameter of roughly 8 feet. Once air is blown into the pod, it is set to expand to a size of 13 feet long and 10.5 feet wide.

The pods could be an ideal habitat for astronauts in space, NASA scientists had hoped. The space agency partnered with Bigelow Aerospace to test the module in the vacuum of space.

The original plan was to attach BEAM to the International Space Station (ISS), inflate it, close it off, and have astronauts periodically take measurements of the space over a two-year period. Astronauts would check sensors inside the module that could help determine how the Kevlar-like material and fabric was holding up against space junk, solar radiation, and extreme temperatures.

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