CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — SpaceX resumed station deliveries for NASA on Friday with the launch of a futuristic pop-up room, the first ever built for astronauts.
The unmanned Falcon rocket soared into into a clear afternoon sky, carrying a full load of supplies for the International Space Station as well as the cosmos' first inflatable living quarters.
Bigelow Aerospace is providing the expandable compartment, which swells to the size of a small bedroom. It's a testbed for orbiting rental property that the Nevada company hopes to launch in four years, and also for moon and Mars habitats.
The Dragon capsule and its headline-grabbing payload should reach the space station Sunday.
The 7,000 pounds of freight represent SpaceX's first station shipment in a year. A launch accident halted cargo flights last summer. SpaceX was trying to land the leftover booster on an ocean barge, something it's yet to achieve for reusability, as a way to shave launch costs.
Traffic has been heavy lately at the 260-mile-high complex. NASA's other commercial shipper, Orbital ATK, made a delivery at the end of March, then Russia just last weekend. Now, it's SpaceX's turn. The Dragon will join three cargo carriers and two crew capsules already parked there.
Besides a bevy of biological experiments — including 20 mice for a muscle study, and cabbage and lettuce plants for research as well as crew consumption — the Dragon capsule holds the pioneering pod.
The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM, is a 21st-century reincarnation of NASA's TransHab, which never got beyond blueprints and ground mock-ups in the 1990s. Hotel entrepreneur Robert Bigelow bought rights to TransHab, then persuaded NASA to host BEAM at the space station.
Empty except for sensors, the experimental BEAM is Bigelow's first soft-sided space structure meant for people. Astronauts will enter periodically during the two years it's at the station.
Bigelow hopes to have two station-size inflatables ready to launch around 2020 for commercial use, potentially followed by inflatable moon bases. NASA, meanwhile, envisions using inflatable habitats during 2030s Mars expeditions.
On hand for Friday's launch, accompanied by a dozen employees, Bigelow said he considers this a historic moment. The upcoming mission promises to "change the entire dynamic for human habitation," he said on the eve of launch.
"It is the future ... the next logical step in humans getting off the planet," NASA's space station program manager, Kirk Shireman, told reporters Thursday.
SpaceX's last delivery attempt, in June, ended in flames after just two minutes, doomed by a snapped strut in the oxygen tank of the upper stage. The company successfully resumed Falcon launches late last year with satellites.
Besides Falcon repairs and upgrades, SpaceX activated the Dragon's parachute system this time. That way, in case of a launch accident, the Dragon could parachute into the Atlantic and hopefully be salvaged. The Dragon is the only station cargo ship capable of returning items to Earth and thus equipped with parachutes.
NASA is anxious to get back blood and other samples collected by one-year spaceman Scott Kelly, who returned to Earth in March, as well as a defective spacesuit that cut short a spacewalk in January.
Bigelow Aerospace: http://bigelowaerospace.com/