NASA Selects Selects Six Deep Space Habitat Proposals for Ground Development

SNC's NextSTEP Concept Credit: Sierra Nevada Corporation

SNC’s NextSTEP Concept
Credit: Sierra Nevada Corporation

NASA has chosen six companies for further evaluation of potential deep space habitat modules as part of the agency’s Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships initiative.

The selected companies are:

  • Bigelow Aerospace of Las Vegas
  • Boeing of Pasadena, Texas
  • Lockheed Martin of Denver
  • Orbital ATK of Dulles, Virginia
  • Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Space Systems of Louisville, Colorado
  • NanoRacks of Webster, Texas

NextSTEP was originally introduced as a Broad Agency Announcement in 2014 in order to foster public-private partnerships to advance a number of technologies which will be needed for operations in space beyond low Earth orbit. An actual place for astronauts to live besides the 21 day capacity Orion capsule is at the top of the list.

The announcement includes some expected proposals, as well as some surprises.

As the major contractor for the International Space Station and the company that built the core modules which comprise the U.S. segment, Boeing’s entry is an obvious choice, as is that from Orbital ATK, which hopes to sell NASA on a modified version of the Cygnus cargo vessel which is already servicing the Station.

And then there is Lockheed Martin, which would seemingly have an inside track given the fact that it is building the Orion spacecraft to which NASA’s habitat would be joined and with which it would have to interface. For this proposal, the company is using yet another ISS element, a retired Multi-Purpose Logistics Module, presumably acquired from NASA, which it intends to modify.

MPLM’s were utilized during the Shuttle era as pressurized, refillable cargo containers which were flown to space by the Orbiter, temporarily attached to the Station for unloading and reloading, and then flown back to Earth. One, the Permanent Multi-Purpose Module was left attached to ISS at the conclusion of STS-133 in 2011.

Also coming as no surprise is a concept from the company behind the most recent addition to the ISS, Bigelow Aerospace, whose BEAM module was installed earlier this summer. Bigelow is proposing a version of XBASE, (Expandable Bigelow Advanced Station Enhancement) a 330 cubic meter habitat the company would like to attach to ISS as a fully commercial follow-on to BEAM.

The remaining two proposals, one from Sierra Nevada Corporation, and one from NanoRacks, differ considerably, and both seem more of stretch.

SNC is working on a modular unit derived from the Dream Chaser Cargo System which won a portion of NASA’s CRS-2 resupply contract earlier this year. SNC’s NextSTEP-2 habitat would be assembled over the course of 3-4 commercial launches of the pressurized cargo containers which ride to orbit attached to the rear of the Dream Chaser space plane. They would then be combined with a “large inflatable fabric environment module,”  ECLSS (Environmental Control and Life Support System) as well as a propulsion system to form a combined unit.

Finally there is current station payload integrator and innovator NanoRacks, which is recycling a concept NASA used as the basis of Skylab, as was also the subject of numerous pitches involving the Shuttle’s External Tank. Partnering with United Launch Alliance and Space Systems Loral, NanoRacks would retrofit a launch vehicle upper stage, possible from SLS, in order to make it into a habitable structure.

The new phase is expected to last for two years, and to result in ground based prototypes which can be used for operational, human factor and integrated systems testing. The various industry partners will be expected to contribute at least 30% towards a combined total which will come to approximately $65 million through 2017.


Posted in: NASA, Space Stations

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1 Comment on "NASA Selects Selects Six Deep Space Habitat Proposals for Ground Development"

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  1. austin says:

    It seems to me there are only two options:

    1) the safe bet
    2) the ideal

    Cygnus has to be the safe bet. It exists right now in current production, it’s proven, it’s relatively cheap, and it’s development has already been paid for.

    Bigelow is obviously the ideal. It has more volume with many theoretical safety improvements over traditional cans. Why waste time and money on concepts that simply won’t offer any benefits beyond these two?

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