Astronauts aboard the International Space Station on Saturday slowly inflated an experimental fabric module that may provide a less expensive and safer option for housing crews during long stays in space, a NASA TV broadcast showed, Reuters reported.
An initial attempt to unfurl the module on Thursday failed, most likely because of friction within the module's layers of fabric, foam and reinforced outer covering, NASA said.
"It's a learning process," said NASA mission commentator Dan Huot. "Everything will influence the design and operation of expandable habitats in the future."
The prototype habitat, which was flown to the station last month, is the first expandable habitat to be tested with astronauts in space.
Designed and built by privately owned Bigelow Aerospace, the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM, is far less costly to launch than traditional metal habitats and also may provide astronauts with better radiation protection.
The lightweight modules could be used by crews on three-year missions to the planet Mars. The Las Vegas-based company previously flew two unmanned prototypes.
Working from inside the space station, astronaut Jeff Williams began inflating BEAM shortly after 9 a.m. (1300 GMT) by opening a valve to release air into the module.
Williams told flight controllers he heard short popping sounds, which Huot said were stitches inside the module ripping apart as designed when BEAM began to expand.
"That is good news," astronaut Jessica Meir radioed to Williams from Mission Control in Houston.
With more spurts of air BEAM slowly unfurled in length and diameter over the next several hours, setting the stage for tanks of pressurized air inside the module to open. Eventually BEAM will expand to the size of a small bedroom, a 10-fold increase in volume. The process is expected to be completed later on Saturday.
NASA plans to keep BEAM attached to the station, a $100 billion research laboratory that flies about 250 miles (400 km) above Earth, for two years to see how it fares in the harsh environment of space.
Bigelow Aerospace aims to fly inflatable space modules 20 times larger than BEAM that can be leased out to companies and research organizations.