SpaceX delivers world's 1st inflatable room for astronauts

Monday, April 11, 2016

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- SpaceX has made good on a high-priority delivery: the world's first inflatable room for astronauts.

A SpaceX Dragon cargo ship arrived at the International Space Station on Sunday, two days after launching from Cape Canaveral. Station astronauts used a robot arm to capture the Dragon, orbiting 250 miles above Earth.

The Dragon holds 7,000 pounds of freight, including the soft-sided compartment built by Bigelow Aerospace. The pioneering pod -- packed tightly for launch -- should swell to the size of a small bedroom once filled with air next month.

It will be attached to the space station Saturday, but won't be inflated until the end of May. The technology could change the way astronauts live in space: NASA envisions inflatable habitats in a couple decades at Mars, while Bigelow Aerospace aims to launch a pair of inflatable space stations in just four years for commercial lease.

For now, the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module -- BEAM for short -- will remain mostly off-limits to the six-man station crew. NASA wants to see how the experimental chamber functions, so the hatch will stay sealed except when astronauts enter a few times a year to collect measurements and swap out sensors.

This is SpaceX's first delivery for NASA in a year. A launch accident last June put shipments on hold.

SpaceX flight controllers at company headquarters in Hawthorne, California, applauded when the hefty station arm plucked Dragon from orbit. A few hours later, the capsule was bolted securely into place.

"It looks like we caught a Dragon," announced British astronaut Timothy Peake, who made the grab.

"There are smiles all around here," NASA's Mission Control replied. "Nice job capturing that Dragon."

SpaceX still is reveling in the success of Friday's booster landing at sea.

For the first time, a leftover booster came to a solid vertical touchdown on a floating platform.

SpaceX chief executive Elon Musk wants to reuse boosters to save money, a process he said will open access to space for more people in more places, such as Mars.

NASA also has Mars in its sights and looks to send astronauts there in the 2030s.

To focus on that objective, the space agency has hired U.S. companies such as SpaceX to deliver cargo and, as early as next year, astronauts to the space station.

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