NASA selects six companies to develop deep space habitation prototypes

Conceptual image of a deep space habitation module. Credit: NASA

Conceptual image of a deep space habitation module. Credit: NASA

NASA recently announced they have selected six companies to develop ground prototypes of deep space habitation modules as part of the agency’s ‘Journey to Mars’. Though NASA has been making steady progress on their heavy-lift rocket – the Space Launch System (SLS) – and the Orion spacecraft, a lengthy interplanetary journey will require a dedicated habitation module.

To that end, NASA has partnered with Bigelow Aerospace, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Orbital ATK, Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Space Systems, and NanoRacks to develop prototypes and concepts of habitation modules suitable for such a journey. The companies will have approximately 24 months to produce a prototype and/or a concept study.

“NASA is on an ambitious expansion of human spaceflight, including the Journey to Mars, and we’re utilizing the innovation, skill and knowledge of both the government and private sectors,” said Jason Crusan, director of NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems in a press release issued by the agency. “The next human exploration capabilities needed beyond the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion capsule are deep space, long duration habitation and in-space propulsion. We are now adding focus and specifics on the deep space habitats where humans will live and work independently for months or years at a time, without cargo supply deliveries from Earth.”

Developing ground prototypes is crucial in understanding how the habitats will integrate into an overall crewed system. Both physical and virtual models will be used to test and plan the layouts of the modules. It’s better to work through hundreds, or thousands, of iterations on the ground than to find out something doesn’t work once it’s on orbit.

Expedition 47 astronauts and cosmonauts gather for a group photo inside BEAM. Credit: Tim Peake/ESA/NASA

Expedition 47 astronauts and cosmonauts gather for a group photo inside BEAM. Credit: Tim Peake/ESA/NASA

One of the companies, Bigelow Aerospace, currently has a test module attached to the International Space Station (ISS). Their Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) was launched to the ISS aboard the SpaceX CRS-8 mission on April 8, 2016, and subsequently attached to the orbiting outpost eight days later. After some initial hitches, BEAM was eventually fully expanded and pressurized. Though not nominally inhabited, astronauts will occasionally enter BEAM to recover test data to send back to Bigelow.

Bigelow expects to field their XBASE (Expandable Bigelow Advanced Station Enhancement) module for the NextSTEP initiative. The 330 cubic meter habitat is based on the company’s B-330 spacecraft, though modified to attach to the ISS as a “visiting vehicle”. By comparison, BEAM is 16 cubic meters in volume.

Orbital ATK also hopes to leverage its experience with ISS operations. Based off the company’s cargo resupply ship, Orbital ATK looks to develop a solution derived from their Cygnus spacecraft. The enlarged module would operate in cislunar space, maturing the design and systems, while the company develops a Mars-focused roadmap.

You can read more about this initiative on NASA’s site, including the proposed designs from Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Sierra Nevada Corporation, and NanoRacks.

Concept of Lockheed Martin's NextSTEP-2 habitat with Orion. Credit: Lockheed Martin

Concept of Lockheed Martin’s NextSTEP-2 habitat with Orion. Credit: Lockheed Martin