NASA has made no secret that it wants to send a manned mission to Mars one day, but its present plans revolve around using its Orion space capsule as the transport of choice – which would be a bit like sailing non-stop from London to Sydney in a crowded bathtub. To give future space explorers more elbow room, the space agency has selected six companies to build ground prototypes and concepts for deep-space habitats for missions to the asteroids and the Red Planet under its Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships-2 (NextSTEP-2) program.

The companies selected are Bigelow Aerospace, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Orbital ATK, Sierra Nevada Corporation, and NanoRacks. Under the contract, the six companies will be expected to produce ground prototypes or deep space habitation concept studies in the next two years with additional funding available in 2018. The exact award to each one will depend on negotiations, but NASA estimates a combined total of US$65 million will be divided up between the companies, each of which will be expected to pony up at least 30 percent of the costs of their prototype or concept study.

The purpose of the awards is to not only develop hardware for deep space missions, but also to encourage the commercial exploitation of low-Earth orbit. The prototypes will be used for integrated systems testing, human factors and operations testing, and for defining overall system functionality. NASA says that these, in turn, will be used to set down design standards, common interfaces, and engineering requirements while reducing risks for the ultimate final flight systems.

In addition, the six companies will help in developing standards and interfaces, module configurations, and habitat deployment options for the Space Launch System (SLS), Orion, and commercial space vehicles, as well as enhancing habitat capabilities with international partners.

Here's a brief rundown of each of the prototypes and concept studies proposed by the six awardees:

Bigelow Aerospace LLC

Bigelow will take the lessons learned from the deployment of the 16-cubic meter (565-cu. ft.) Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) in developing and testing an Expandable Bigelow Advanced Station Enhancement (XBASE) prototype. Designed specifically to attach to the ISS as a visiting vehicle, the 330-cubic meter (11,654-cu.ft) XBASE is based on the B-330 expandable spacecraft.

Boeing (Houston)

Boeing will also leverage previous experience in developing a modular habitat system, this time the 15 years it has been involved with designing, developing, assembling on-orbit and safely operating the ISS. To simulate how humans can safely live and work in deep space for extended periods, Boeing will produce a full-scale ground demonstrator to test and validate interface standards, systems functionality and critical exploration technologies.

Lockheed Martin (Denver)

Lockheed Martin will develop a full-scale habitat prototype by refurbishing a multi-purpose logistics module similar to ones used to carry supplies to and from the ISS aboard the space shuttle. The prototype will include an integrated Environmental Control and Life Support System (ECLSS) and an avionics prototype to validate data communication between the habitat and Orion and demonstrate crew movement between a deep space habitat and Orion. Virtual prototyping will also be used to validate the habitat module's form, fit and function.

Orbital ATK

Orbital ATK's effort will involve further development of its initial cislunar habitat concept, which was based on the Cygnus spacecraft. The prototype will adapt the Cygnus-derived habitat design to make it suitable for long-term deep space operation, with Orbital also laying out a proposed roadmap that ultimately leads to exploration of Mars.

Sierra Nevada Corporation's Space Systems

Sierra Nevada Corporation's modular long-duration prototype will be based on the Dream Chaser cargo module and would combine with a large inflatable fabric environment module, ECLSS, and propulsion system once launched from the Dream Chaser spacecraft. The prototype is designed to confirm the proof-of-concept and ensure seamless integration of critical subsystems between the modules.


NanoRacks will partner with Space Systems Loral and the United Launch Alliance to form Ixion Team, which will conduct a feasibility study examining the potential for an existing launch vehicle's upper stage or propellant segment to be converted into a pressurized habitable volume in space. Any rocket system, including the SLS, will be looked at.

If all goes well, NASA sees the habitat development as leading to deployment in cislunar missions in the next decade as a rehearsal for the Mars mission and to develop human, robotic, and spacecraft operations in an environment similar to deep space, yet close to home.

"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," says Jason Crusan, director of NASA's Advanced Exploration Systems. "The next human exploration capabilities needed beyond the Space Launch System 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."

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