The new rocket will be fully loaded, delivering "an amazing bonanza for the biological sciences" to the space station, said NASA's Kirt Costello. Astronauts will be busy handling things like the first-ever space experiments from Eli Lilly.
The pharmaceutical giant wants, among other things, to study muscle degeneration on mice in space — research that could someday lead to treatments for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease, and multiple sclerosis. Astronauts will also receive seeds for growing vegetables in a NASA experiment on gravity-free gardening, including a version of Chinese cabbage that may grow well in space and tastes pretty good.
But one experiment towers over all of them like a 3,100-pound inflatable gorilla — the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM. It will be packed like a small space "tent" into the trunk of the Dragon capsule.
Once the Dragon reaches the space station, the BEAM will be attached to a port and filled with air, expanding to the size of a large closet. Then, at least four times a year for the next two years, astronauts will enter the BEAM in their regular clothes — no spacesuits needed — and check its systems.
"We're very excited," Bigelow said this week at the Kennedy Space Center.
It's been a long road to this point.
Expandable habitats are based on technology NASA abandoned in the late '90s. Bigelow picked up that technology and spent a fortune reworking it, only to sell it back to NASA at a steep discount — $17.8 million.