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NASA, Bigelow taking another stab at inflating space station room early Saturday

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — NASA is taking a second crack at inflating an experimental room at the International Space Station.

Flight controllers, along with the astronauts, will try again Saturday to expand the world’s first soft-sided compartment for space travelers. Thursday’s effort was halted after the pod barely grew in size when air was let in.

Officials told reporters Friday that friction among the compressed fabric layers likely kept the chamber from expanding to its full 13 feet in length and 10 ½ feet in diameter.

In fact, the pod — called BEAM for Bigelow Expandable Activity Module — only swelled a few inches beyond its packed 7 feet in length and 8 feet in diameter. Overnight, it expanded slightly more.

BEAM was launched by SpaceX in April following months of rocket delays and attached to the outside of the station. Because of the postponement, the pod was packed up tight longer than anticipated. NASA relieved some of the pressure inside BEAM on Friday to relax the materials and, hopefully, allow the chamber to expand more easily on the next go-around.

Bigelow Aerospace is behind the technology demonstration. The Nevada company envisions using inflatable spacecraft to house tourists orbiting Earth — founder Robert Bigelow is in the hotel business, after all — as well as astronauts bound for Mars.

Because this has never been done before at a space station, NASA is proceeding slowly and methodically to inflate the room, said mission operations manager Kenny Todd. If too much force was exerted by BEAM on the space station — say by a rapid pressurization — the connecting modules could be weakened.

“To be honest with you, it doesn’t surprise me a great deal that we ended up here,” Todd said, given the conservative approach.

There is no hurry to inflate BEAM, Todd stressed, and it poses no safety hazard to either the space station or its six-man crew. BEAM is supposed to remain at the orbiting outpost for two years, with astronauts only occasionally ducking inside. Sensors will measure temperature and radiation levels, as well as possible impacts by space debris.

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