The push into space has taken mankind to the moon and now space agencies are looking at sending humans into deep space. But to do so, the agencies need a way to make transportation to and habitation in deep space sustainable, not to mention somewhat comfortable.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has announced plans including a mission to Mars and missions to an asteroid, to expand human knowledge of deep space. As part of its Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) plan, the agency has now partnered with six US companies to develop prototypes for deep space habitats that would support deep space exploration capabilities.
NextSTEP was originally announced in May 2015, when NASA said it wanted to launch more extensive missions to areas considered deep space, including Mars and cis-lunar space (the area around the moon). At the time, 12 projects were announced that would push the development of deep space capability forward. Those projects included areas such as advanced propulsion, needed to move exploration into deeper space; habitation, needed to keep teams alive for weeks to months at a time while they explore deep space; and small satellites, which help collect data and further human knowledge of deep space.
Now, six companies have been selected to develop “full-sized ground prototypes and concepts for deep space habitats” under the second NextSTEP program. The habitats must have a variety of components, including pressurized volume, docking capability, life support systems, logistics management, and safety technologies. NASA will test how the various components function, how they interact with each other, and how they are likely to function in deep space, to ensure the people living in them can be kept alive and in communication.
“The NextSTEP partnerships are a large contribution to the dual objectives of advancing deep space habitation development and stimulating commercial activities in low-Earth orbit,” said Jason Crusan, Director of Advanced Exploration Systems at NASA Headquarters.
The six partners include Boeing (BA), Lockheed Martin (LMT), Bigelow Aerospace LLC, Orbital ATK (OA), Sierra Nevada, and NanoRacks. Each company will work on a different product.
“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 utilizing SLS and Orion and commercial vehicles,” NASA wrote on its blog.
Before being used on a mission to Mars, the habitats will first be used in an area around the moon. The mission to Mars isn’t anticipated until the 2030s, giving NASA time to get the habitats right.
NASA is currently working on the Orion capsule, which is intended to carry astronauts to an asteroid around the moon in the 2020s. But the Government Accountability Office seems unsure NASA can meet such an ambitious deadline.