While most of us were still sleeping this morning, NASA astronaut was opening the hatch to the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM. Williams popped the hatch at 4:47 a.m. ET. Along with cosmonaut Oleg Skripochka, Williams floated inside the BEAM to see how it was doing.

Jeff Williams inside BEAM

Yeah, NASA knew the module was in good enough shape to open it without being in spacesuits.

Besides a slight chill in the air, Williams reported the module looked “pristine.” He saw no evidence of any condensation on the inner surfaces. Williams went to work collecting an air sample and downloading data from sensors inside the module. He also installed air ducts inside.

Once Williams wrapped up his work, the hatch to BEAM was closed. The ISS crew will enter the module several more times through Wednesday to check sensors and gear inside. Future crews will keep tabs on the module to see just how durable it is. Bigelow Aerospace’s module is expected to stay attached to the ISS for two years.

BEAM’s present and future

Think of BEAM as a precursor to the next step in expandable habitats. A test run. For the next couple of years, ISS crew members and engineers on the ground will constantly monitor the module’s temperature, radiation protection, debris impact and more. Astronauts will venture inside every so often and inspect the interior and gather air samples.

Last year, NASA’s Charles Bolden preached the importance of private companies like Bigelow.

“The world of low Earth orbit belongs to industry. You need to understand where we’re going. A Bigelow module may be the next thing that begins to replace some of the functions of the International Space Station. Low Earth orbit infrastructure belongs to industry… If we don’t have a viable, vibrant low Earth orbit infrastructure supported by them [commercial industry], we’re not getting there [Mars].”

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Bigelow’s BEAM is the demonstration. B330 is the ultimate goal. The expanded volume of BEAM is 16m³. B330 is 330m³. According to Bigelow, that’s 210% more habitable space than the ISS Destiny module. Here’s an artist concept of how that space would look.

B330 Bigelow concept

“The B330 can be deployed by multiple launch vehicles and features an architecture designed with modular expansion in mind. A single B330 can be joined in orbit by multiple vehicles, in addition to other B330 and Bigelow Aerospace spacecraft,” reads the description from Bigelow’s website.

NASA and Bigelow are going to put BEAM through rigorous testing before B330 is ever considered. But you can see where they want expandable habitats to eventually get to. Because these habitats are inflated, you get much more space with much less mass. That’s a win-win for any potential mission to Mars. And more importantly, a potential base.

We might still be years away from a B330 module being attached to the ISS, but it’s awesome to watch the testing as it happens. NASA just released a short clip showing Jeff Williams entering BEAM. A camera attached to his headlamp gives us a good look at what the interior looks like.

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