What will space living look like? NASA picks 6 habitat prototypes

NASA picks Boeing, Bigelow, Lockheed Martin, Orbital, Sierra Nevada and NanoRacks to build prototypes


NASA this week picked six companies to develop prototype deep space habitats that astronauts could somewhat comfortably live in on long space journeys – particularly to Mars.

According to NASA, an effective habitat contains “pressurized volume plus an integrated array of complex systems and components that include a docking capability, environmental control and life support systems, logistics management, radiation mitigation and monitoring, fire safety technologies, and crew health capabilities.” 

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“The ground prototypes will let NASA and the partners 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 stated.

NASA said the six companies would have about 24 months to develop ground prototypes and/or conduct concept studies for deep space habitats. NASA has estimated the combined total of all the awards, covering work in 2016 and 2017, will be approximately $65 million, with additional funding continuing into 2018. Selected partners are required to contribute at least 30% of the cost of the overall proposed effort, the space agency said.

“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 statement. “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.”

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The prototype habitats are part of a NASA program called Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP), which is developing all manner of deep space systems from advanced propulsion to satellites. Announced in 2014, NextSTEP programs for habitat development are already underway at a number of space industry companies such as Bigelow, Boeing and Orbital.

Congress earlier this year urged the space agency to move along its ideas for how humans would live on planets or other places far from Earth. With that pressure as a backdrop NASA said it wants US companies, universities, and non-profit organizations to offer up their best ideas for space living systems would include reliable life support systems, fire safety, atmosphere revitalization and monitoring, water processing, lighting, and fire detection and radiation protection.

Here are the companies an their prototypes as described by NASA:

Bigelow Aerospace will develop and test a prototype of Expandable Bigelow Advanced Station Enhancement (XBASE), a 330 cubic meter expandable habitat and test platform for deep space hardware. 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 learned from the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), a 16 cubic meter expandable spacecraft, which was recently deployed on the space station.

Boeing is developing a modular habitat system that includes technology from 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 features and critical exploration technologies. 

Lockheed Martin 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 environmental control and life support systems 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. 

Orbital ATK 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. It will use the Cygnus-derived habitat design for long-term operation in deep space and establish a proposed roadmap that leads to Mars exploration.

orbitalatk nextstep2 ich high res Orbital ATK
Concept image of Orbital ATK's cislunar habitat based, based on the design of the Cygnus spacecraft.
Credits: Orbital ATK

Sierra Nevada 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.

NanoRacks 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 pressurized habitable volume in space.

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