The future of space exploration will consist of deep space missions like the one to Mars we have heard so much about. An essential element of any such mission is to have habitat module that can sustain an astronaut crew. In order come up with the best design, NASA has enlisted the help of six companies.
NASA has awarded six contracts, with a total value of $65 million, to various companies, as part of its second Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP 2) program to design habitats for future deep space missions including the one to Mars.
In 2015, the first NextSTEP program had the same purpose and involved four companies: Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Bigelow Aerospace and Orbital ATK. They have also been awarded a contract for NextSTEP 2, where they will focus on refining the original concepts of the habitat and eventually building them for ground testing. Each one of the companies involved is expected to contribute at least 30 percent of the total cost of the project they select.
The newest additions are teams led by NanoRacks and Sierra Nevada Corp., and they will focus on design studies rather than module prototypes over the two-year period of their contracts. The team from NanoRacks will study the feasibility of converting a Centaur upper-stage rocket into a habit module in an attempt to reduce costs.
“This is the only strategy that nearly eliminates both fabrication and launch costs since the habitat has essentially already been built and the launch of the habitat is an inherent part of every Atlas 5 flight.”
For NASA, the NextSTEP 2 program represents a critical phase of its plans to create habitat able to support the crew of cislunar missions starting with 2020.
According to Jason Crusan, the director of NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems :
“This is an important time frame because these ground prototypes allow us to do integrated form, fit and function testing to a high fidelity of the concepts that the industry has for meeting our requirements.”
A deep space habitat requires careful attention to detail to ensure the safety of the crew. It needs to be pressurized as any other spacecraft and then be able to integrate a series of systems such as life support, docking and radiation protection, with one another.
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