NASA leverages ISS as it gets go ahead for a deep space habitat
In the latest omnibus spending bill approved by Congress, NASA was awarded $55 million in order to help accelerate development of a deep space habitation module. SpaceFlight Insider spoke with agency representatives to determine what these initial efforts might entail.
According to the report that accompanied the appropriations bill, NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems program was allotted the funds in 2016 to create a ‘habitation augmentation module’ for crewed deep space operations. Additionally, the bill requires that NASA report how it plans to spend the funds and what progress has been made within 180 days. The report also stipulates that the space agency have a management structure in place to direct the program.
Representatives with NASA clarified where the funds came from and the fact that this amount is a part of $19.3 billion that the agency received for this year.
“The explanatory statement accompanying the fiscal year 2016 omnibus appropriations bill designated $55 million for habitation systems. The designation, however, does not represent a funding augmentation,” NASA’s Director of the agency’s Advanced Exploration Systems Division Jason C. Crusan told SpaceFlight Insider. “The money comes from the appropriation for Exploration Research & Development, the account that includes funding for Advanced Exploration Systems and the Human Research Program. The total appropriated for Exploration Research & Development was about $49 million below the President’s Budget Request. NASA is in the process of analyzing the language in the explanatory statement.”
For its part, the U.S. space agency has noted that it has been and will continue to work on habitats utilizing this boost in funding.
“We have a number of habitation and Environmental Control and Life Support Systems (ECLSS) activities in development, with several ready for demonstration on the space station this year and more in the next couple of years,” Crusan went on to note.
NASA and Crusan provided SpaceFlight Insider with the following list of payloads that are slated to fly to the International Space Station (ISS) on upcoming cargo missions:
• Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) will be berthed to the ISS for a two-year demonstration and analysis of inflatable habitats. The primary goals include the deployment process, thermal, radiation, and general operations during this test period. The launch is planned aboard the next SpaceX space station cargo resupply mission, CRS-8, currently scheduled for no earlier than March 20.
• Spacecraft Fire Safety (SAFFIRE) includes a planned set of test flights to seek fundamental understanding of flame spread in large-scale microgravity fires, demonstrate the performance of combustion product monitor systems, and conduct test of post-fire cleanup technologies for Orion, the space station, and future habitation systems. These tests will be conducted on three Cygnus cargo ships after the spacecraft has safely departed from ISS.
• Aerosol Sampler will perform a demonstration of a modified off-the-shelf aerosol sampler on the space station to gather quantitative data on ambient air quality on the station. The station has a high concentration of airborne particles that cause allergies and irritate crew members’ eyes and noses.
• More efficient air and water systems: Systems under development that are planned for demonstration on the space station over the next five years will increase efficiency and reduce dependence on resupply from Earth. These systems will improve waste water recovery (currently at 74 percent), air filtration and monitoring, atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) removal, and oxygen recovery from CO2, advancing from the current 43 percent to more than 75 percent.
Before these new directions from Congress, NASA had been working to build a habitation module for testing in cislunar space. The design would have undergone a shakedown cruise over a period of about a year while the craft was within accessible reach. The plan for that design called for a test in the late 2020s. The new direction mandated in the bill calls for completion of a prototype of the habitation module by 2018.
NASA has been working on several areas that would lead to a habitation module including launching the BEAM module to the ISS.
Additionally, NASA has the Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) program which awarded one-year contracts for habitation studies in March 2015. Four companies—Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Bigelow Aerospace, and Orbital ATK—were each awarded $1 million to study the issue and design preliminary solutions.
Subsystem contracts were also awarded for the development of critical components such as life support. The companies receiving these contracts included Orbital Technologies Corporation, Dynetics, and Hamilton Sundstrand.
“Under the NextSTEP BAA (Broad Agency Agreement), NASA awarded full system analysis studies to Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Orbital ATK, and Bigelow. The agency also awarded full system analysis tasks to Orbitec and UTC for ECLSS. These studies will reach completion toward the end of fiscal year 2016,” Crusan said.
The news that Congress is pushing NASA to accelerate habitat development is welcomed by some in the industry.
“We’re thrilled that Congress took the lead. It is the missing piece of the human space exploration puzzle,” Mike Gold, director of D.C. operations and business growth for Bigelow Aerospace, said in a recent interview with Space News.
Bigelow has a significant advantage in the habitation design game. Based on NASA’s TransHab technology, the company has designed a series of inflatable structures. Two of the company’s designs have already flown in space. Genesis I and II were launched in 2006 and 2007, respectively.
These prototype stations tested the basic design and provided valuable research data for the construction of their BEAM system. The data has also been used to enhance Bigelow’s larger BA-330—a space station-sized inflatable module capable of supporting up to six crew members.
NASA carried out the first flight of the new crew-rated Orion spacecraft, during the December 2014 Exploration Flight Test 1. The massive Space Launch System super-heavy-lift rocket is scheduled to take to the skies for the first time in 2018. However, another older and well-traveled NASA asset has been used to get the agency ready for its first crewed forays into deep space since December of 1972.
“We are leveraging capabilities we’ve developed for the space station, and incorporating the operational lessons for deep-space operations,” Crusan said, noting that there should be some distinct differences between the Apollo Moonshots and the planned missions to destinations as distant as Mars. “We are using public-private partnerships in concert with international partner considerations to identify implementation options for fully integrated habitation systems.”
Orion is planned for use sending crews to and ferry them from low-Earth orbit. The habitats themselves will likely be used either on the surface of Mars or as part of the spacecraft that will transport crews to destinations such as a portion of an asteroid towed into lunar orbit or the Red Planet.
NASA continues its efforts to partner with commercial aerospace firms; in this case, some six aerospace firms have been selected to develop concepts for hardware which may be used on deep space missions.
NASA appears to be leveraging the technologies that are being tried and tested orbit on the space station for use on both of the agency’s crewed efforts.
By the end of fiscal year 2016, the NextSTEP BAA partners will complete their concept studies and report to NASA potential approaches to meet NASA’s requirements for deep space (initially in cislunar), while also seeking to foster the commercial application of developed capabilities to assist in the creation of a robust commercial market in low-Earth orbit when NASA shifts its focus for new development toward proving ground operations in cislunar space.
Joe Latrell is a life-long avid space enthusiast having created his own rocket company in Roswell, NM in addition to other consumer space endeavors. He continues to design, build and launch his own rockets and has a passion to see the next generation excited about the opportunities of space exploration. Joe lends his experiences from the corporate and small business arenas to organizations such as Teachers In Space, Inc. He is also actively engaged in his church investing his many skills to assist this and other non-profit endeavors.