NASA Is Funding Construction of 6 Deep-Space Habitats on Earth

Living is space for extended periods is the goal of Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP2).

By Ryan Whitwam

Concept image of the interior of a deep space habitat. [credit: NASA]

NASA’s big push these days is a manned mission to Mars, but that’s not going to happen until the 2030s at the earliest. In the meantime, we need to develop ways for humans to live safely in space for extended periods of time. That’s the goal of NASA’s Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships-2 (NextSTEP-2). The latest initiative in this program is the development of six deep space human habitats here on Earth for in-depth testing.

Each of the six habitats will be developed by a different private company over the course of this year and next. You’re probably familiar with some of the ideas and companies that are participating in the habitat test: For example, one is Bigelow Aerospace, which made news recently with an inflatable module on the International Space Station. Bigelow will be developing a prototype of the XBASE (Expandable Bigelow Advanced Station Enhancement), which is larger than the BEAM modules on the ISS. The XBASE will be 330 cubic meters in size, compared to just 16 cubic meters for the BEAM.

Boing’s NextSTEP2 demonstrator.

Space heavyweights Boeing and Lockheed Martin are also getting involved. Boeing doesn’t have many details, just that it plans to develop a module habitat system. Lockheed has an interesting plan that involves refurbishing logistics modules in space for use as habitats. Orbital ATK has worked with NASA on a number of big projects, too, and it’s designing a habitat version of its Cygnus cargo vessel.

The lesser known firms working on the habitat project include Sierra Nevada Corporation, which will develop a prototype module space station design that can be assembled in orbit in 3–4 launches. NanoRacks is the final participant and will explore the feasibility of converting the upper stages of existing launch vehicles into habitable volume in orbit.

NASA expects to award about $65 million in total for work done on these feasibility studies, some of which could eventually become real space habitats.

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