NASA has selected six U.S. companies to help advance the Journey to Mars by developing ground prototypes and concepts for deep space habitats under the second Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) Broad Agency Announcement, or NextSTEP-2
NASA and industry partners will expand commercial development of space in low-Earth orbit while also improving deep space exploration capabilities to support more extensive human spaceflight missions.
The selected partners and their prototypes/concepts are:
Bigelow Aerospace (North Las Vegas, Nevada) will develop and test a prototype of XBASE (eXpandable Bigelow Advanced Station Enhancement), a 330 cubic metre expandable habitat and test platform for deep space hardware. The testing conducted on this platform will advance approaches for deep space missions and serve as a basis for commercialisation in low-Earth orbit. XBASE is based on the B-330 expandable spacecraft for the mission-specific purpose of attaching to the International Space Station as a visiting vehicle. XBASE leverages the lessons learnt from the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), a 16 cubic metre expandable spacecraft, which was recently deployed on the space station.
Boeing (Houston, Texas) is developing a modular habitat system that leverages experience in designing, developing, assembling on-orbit and safely operating the International Space Station for over 15 years. This includes the production of a full-scale habitat that will provide design analysis and high-fidelity demonstration and test capability to simulate how humans can safely live and work in deep space for extended periods of time. This ground demonstrator will test and validate interface standards, systems functionality and critical exploration technologies.
Lockheed Martin (Denver, Colorado) will refurbish a multi-purpose logistics module, like those that were used to carry equipment and supplies to and from the station aboard the space shuttle, into a full-scale habitat prototype that will include integrated avionics and ECLSS. The high-fidelity ECLSS prototype will provide risk reduction and form and fit testing. The avionics prototype will prove data communication between the habitat and Orion and demonstrate crew interfaces between a deep space habitat and Orion. Lockheed Martin will also use virtual prototyping to validate the habitat module’s form, fit and function.
Orbital ATK (Dulles, Virginia) will mature the mission architecture and design of their initial cislunar habitat concept, based on the Cygnus spacecraft that currently services the space station. Orbital ATK will create their prototype to support testing of critical interfaces with Orion and other modules. They will mature the Cygnus-derived habitat design for long-term operation in deep space and establish a proposed roadmap that leads to Mars exploration.
Sierra Nevada’s Space Systems (Louisville, Colorado) will study and refine a flexible architecture and concept of operations for a deep space habitat that leverages three to four commercial launches to construct a modular long-duration habitat. Their prototype will be based on the Dream Chaser cargo module as a foundation for the SNC NextSTEP-2 proposal and will allow SNC to assess their ability to meet the criteria for each operation phase and identify risks. After launch from the Dream Chaser spacecraft, the SNC NextSTEP-2 module will be combined with a large inflatable fabric environment module, ECLSS system and propulsion system. The design and prototype will confirm the proof-of-concept and ensure critical subsystems seamlessly integrate together.
NanoRacks (Webster, Texas) in conjunction with its partners, Space Systems Loral and the United Launch Alliance, referred to collectively as the Ixion Team, will conduct a comprehensive feasibility study regarding the conversion of an existing launch vehicle’s upper stage, or propellant segment, into a pressurised habitable volume in space. The feasibility study will provide insight into this innovative and low-cost approach that can be used for any rocket system, including SLS.
Habitation systems provide a safe place for humans to live as we move beyond Earth on our Journey to Mars. An effective habitat comprises a pressurised volume plus an integrated array of complex systems and components that include a docking capability, Environmental Control and Life Support Systems (ECLSS), logistics management, radiation mitigation and monitoring, fire safety technologies and crew health capabilities. The ground prototypes will allow NASA and the partners to evaluate configurations of the habitat, how the various systems interact together and with other capabilities like propulsion modules and airlocks, and will provide platforms to test and ensure the standards and common interfaces being considered are well thought out.
“NASA is on an ambitious expansion of human spaceflight, including the Journey to Mars, and we’re utilising the innovation, skill and knowledge of both the government and private sectors,” said Jason Crusan, director of NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems. “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.”
The six partners will have up to approximately 24 months to develop ground prototypes and/or conduct concept studies for deep space habitats. The contract award amounts are dependent on contract negotiations, and NASA has estimated the combined total of all the awards, covering work in 2016 and 2017, will be approximately $65m, with additional efforts and funding continuing into 2018. Selected partners are required to contribute at least 30 percent of the cost of the overall proposed effort.
The ground prototypes will be used for three primary purposes: supporting integrated systems testing, human factors and operations testing and to help define overall system functionality. These are important activities as they help define the design standards, common interfaces and requirements while reducing risks for the final flight systems that will come after this phase.
NASA made the first NextSTEP selections in 2015, which include deep space habitation concept studies that also advance low-Earth orbit commercial capabilities. Four companies were selected under that solicitation: Bigelow Aerospace, Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Orbital ATK.
This round of NextSTEP selections are part of a phased approach that will catalyse commercial investment in low-Earth orbit and lead to an operational deep space habitation capability for missions in the area of space near the moon, which will serve as the proving ground for Mars during the 2020s. These missions will demonstrate human, robotic and spacecraft operations in a true deep space environment that’s still relatively close to Earth and validate technologies for the longer journey to Mars.
The activities of these NextSTEP awards will inform the acquisition and deployment approach for the next phase of flight systems for deep space including important aspects, such as standards and interfaces, module configurations and options for deployment using SLS and Orion and commercial vehicles. In addition to U.S. industry, NASA is in discussions on collaborative opportunities with our international partners to enable fully operational deep space habitation capability.
NextSTEP is managed by the Advanced Exploration Systems Division (AES) in NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate. AES is pioneering innovative approaches and public-private partnerships to rapidly develop prototype systems, advance key capabilities and validate operational concepts for future human missions beyond Earth orbit.
See more about the Journey to Mars.
Image credit: NASA