Space

NASA taps six companies to develop habitats for Mars-bound astronauts

NASA taps six companies to dev...
Concept image of the interior of a deep space habitat
Concept image of the interior of a deep space habitat
View 7 Images
Concept image of the interior of a deep space habitat
1/7
Concept image of the interior of a deep space habitat
Concept image of Bigelow Aerospace's XBASE docked to the International Space Station
2/7
Concept image of Bigelow Aerospace's XBASE docked to the International Space Station
Concept image of Boeing's prototype habitation module
3/7
Concept image of Boeing's prototype habitation module
Concept image of Lockheed Martin's refurbished multi-purpose logistics module prototype
4/7
Concept image of Lockheed Martin's refurbished multi-purpose logistics module prototype
Concept image representing the feasibility study that NanoRacks will conduct related to converting a launch vehicle's upper stage into a habitable volume
5/7
Concept image representing the feasibility study that NanoRacks will conduct related to converting a launch vehicle's upper stage into a habitable volume
Concept image of Sierra Nevada Corporation's habitation prototype, based on its Dream Chaser cargo module
6/7
Concept image of Sierra Nevada Corporation's habitation prototype, based on its Dream Chaser cargo module
Concept image of Orbital ATK's cislunar habitat based, based on the design of the Cygnus spacecraft
7/7
Concept image of Orbital ATK's cislunar habitat based, based on the design of the Cygnus spacecraft

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

Concept image of Bigelow Aerospace's XBASE docked to the International Space Station
Concept image of Bigelow Aerospace's XBASE docked to the International Space Station

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)

Concept image of Boeing's prototype habitation module
Concept image of Boeing's prototype habitation module

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)

Concept image of Lockheed Martin's refurbished multi-purpose logistics module prototype
Concept image of Lockheed Martin's refurbished multi-purpose logistics module prototype

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

Concept image of Orbital ATK's cislunar habitat based, based on the design of the Cygnus spacecraft
Concept image of Orbital ATK's cislunar habitat based, based on the design of the Cygnus spacecraft

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

Concept image of Sierra Nevada Corporation's habitation prototype, based on its Dream Chaser cargo module
Concept image of Sierra Nevada Corporation's habitation prototype, based on its Dream Chaser cargo module

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

Concept image representing the feasibility study that NanoRacks will conduct related to converting a launch vehicle's upper stage into a habitable volume
Concept image representing the feasibility study that NanoRacks will conduct related to converting a launch vehicle's upper stage into a habitable volume

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."

Source: NASA

3 comments
bobcat4424
One should immediately notice that SpaceX is not mentioned. In fact, it appears that NASA and the Pentagon are once again closing ranks to keep SpaceX from bidding, such as the recent Pentagon decision to award no-bid contracts to ULA for launching spy satellites (at over 4 times what SpaceX charges.) ULA is 20-30 years behind in technology and depends on rigged no-bid contracts, massive intentional cost overruns, long production delays, and failure to meet specs. In return they hire dozens of retired NASA and Pentagon procurement officers into non-existent "executive" jobs. The original intention was to shelter defense industries in peacetime, but this doesn't work when ULA is forced to use Russian rocket motors and Chinese electronics.
Theo Prinse
I choose for Bigelow expandable modules. These modules will be constructed on 1.5 kilometer circular truss and will make up the living space on rotating wheel ships creating artificial gravity. The Bigelow expandable modules will also comprise the permanent housing on the surface of the Moon and Mars. The Bigelow modules will be rolled out by rover/robots between and under walls build with nomex aramid polymer type sacks filled with 3-4 cubic meters each of Moon or Mars soil. The mobile lifesupport will be installed later.
habakak
Mars bound astronauts....LOL! We have not been able to go back to the Moon with all the 'progress' we've made in the past 44 years since our last visit (1972?). Keep the Trekkies and SW nerds excited. Not until we can build or are willing to use nuclear propulsion to get there (and needed to get us back) do we have a remote shot at at least having a human touch down and come straight back. Even then the odds are very small for said human to make it make alive. Human fragility is even a bigger issue than the technological obstacles (of which most can be solved in the next 25 years). But we will still need to use nuclear propulsion. Or send a fuel tanker ahead of time to refill for the trip back. The logistics of building and testing all this will take at least another decade if we start today.