Spaceflight Insider

NextSTEP-2 companies to develop deep space habitat prototypes

NASA deep space habitat concept

NASA selected six companies to design and develop prototype deep space habitats to be used sometime in the future as part of the agency’s journey to Mars. Image Credit: NASA

Earlier this week, NASA selected six U.S. companies to develop deep space habitat ground prototypes under the second Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP-2) Broad Agency Announcement. The goal of these partnerships is to advance commercial development of space while supporting human spaceflight missions to beyond low-Earth orbit (LEO).

The six companies selected are Bigelow Aerospace, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Orbital ATK, Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC), and NanoRacks. According to NASA, each company will have up to 24 months to develop ground prototypes and/or conduct concept studies for deep space habitats.

The agency has estimated the total cost of NextSTEP-2 will be around $65 million over the next two years. Specific amounts awarded to each company will be dependent on contract negotiations. However, each partner is expected to contribute at least 30 percent of the cost of the overall proposed effort.

“NASA is on an ambitious expansion of human spaceflight, including the Journey to Mars, and we’re utilizing the innovation, skill[,] and knowledge of both the government and private sectors, said Jason Crusan, director of NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems. “The next human exploration capabilities needed beyond the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion capsule are deep space, long-duration habitation, and in-space propulsion. We are now adding focus and specifics on the deep space habitats where humans will live and work independently for months or years at a time, without cargo supply deliveries from Earth.”

The habitat prototypes developed must integrate systems and components that include a docking capability, environmental control and life support systems, logistics management, radiation mitigation and monitoring, fire safety technologies, and crew health capabilities.

The ground prototypes the companies will be developing will be used for three main purposes: supporting integrated systems testing, human factors and operations testing, and to help define overall system functionality. All of this will be done to help define standards, common interfaces, and other requirements as well options for using SLS and Orion as well as commercial spacecraft. Risk reduction for final flight systems is expected to come after this phase.

Bigelow Aerospace

XBASE deep space habitat

Image Credit: Bigelow Aerospace

Bigelow already has three prototype expandable modules in space: Genesis 1, launched in 2006; Genesis 2, launched in 2007; and the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), launched in early 2016, attached to the International Space Station (ISS). The company will build upon those modules and the work they have already done for their future large modules – the 330 cubic meter B330.

Under NextSTEP, Bigelow will develop and test their Expandable Bigelow Advanced Station Enhancement (XBASE). It is essentially a modified version of their B330 design with a specific mission of being attached to the ISS as a visiting vehicle.


Boeing NextSTEP-2 demonstrator

Image Credit: Boeing

Boeing already has experience in designing, building, and assembling many of the already-in-orbit modules of the ISS. Additionally, the company is developing the CST-100 Starliner spacecraft to ferry crews to and from the outpost.

Using this experience, the company will produce a full-scale ground prototype that will provide design analysis as well as high fidelity demonstration and test capability. According to NASA, as part of the NextSTEP goals, the demonstrator will test and validate interface standards, systems functionality, and critical exploration technologies.

Lockheed Martin

Lockheed Martin deep space Habitat

Image Credit: Lockheed Martin

By refurbishing a multi-purpose logistics module, which the Space Shuttles used to resupply the space station, Lockheed Martin will transform it into a full-scale habitat prototype. It will include integrated avionics and environmental control and life support systems.

The company hopes the high-fidelity module will reduce the risk involved in creating a habitat, as this module design has flown in space before. The prototype will also demonstrate data communication can go between the habitat and Orion. Additionally, docking and crew interfaces will be modified to support Orion.

Orbital ATK

Cygnus-based deep space habitat

Image Credit: Orbital ATK

Orbital ATK is expected to mature the architecture currently utilized on the company’s Cygnus spacecraft that currently services the ISS. Features of the prototype spacecraft will be modified to support testing of critical interfaces with Orion and other modules. Additionally, the Cygnus-derived habitat will be designed for long-term operations in deep space, as opposed to a couple of months in LEO at ISS.

Sierra Nevada Corporation

SNC deep space Habitat

Image Credit: Sierra Nevada Corporation

Utilizing the design of the cargo module from the company’s in-development Dream Chaser Cargo System, SNC will study and refine a flexible architecture that utilizes three to four commercial launches to construct a small, modular, long-duration habitat.

“This program is a perfect opportunity to showcase the heritage of our 25 plus years supporting space missions,” said Mark Sirangelo, vice president of SNC’s Space Systems business area, in a statement. “This habitat will combine our experience in space technologies, satellite systems, propulsion and environmental control system from our subsidiary ORBITEC, as well as our work with the Dream Chaser spacecraft under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) and Cargo Resupply Services 2 (CRS-2) contract to support the International Space Station.”

According to SNC, while details will depend on final contract negotiations, the company’s proposed habitat also includes: significant pressurized volume for long-duration human activity, docking capabilities with NASA’s Orion spacecraft and other systems, life support and environmental control, airlocks, crew health monitoring and support systems, and propulsion systems for transportation as well as maneuverability.

As far as propulsion, Aerojet Rocketdyne is working with SNC to produce a fully-functional prototype PowerTrain solar electric propulsion system (SEP).

“We look forward to working with our industry partners on an architectural study for a habitat system that will allow humans to live in space farther from Earth and for longer durations than ever before,” Aerojet Rocketdyne CEO and President Eileen Drake said in a press release.

The PowerTrain SEP is designed to deliver power from solar arrays to thrusters on the spacecraft using peak-power a tracking capability that is compatible with current as well as future advanced Hall-effect thruster systems. The company already built and tested a prototype of the system last year, 2015.


nanoracks deep space concept

Image Credit: NanoRacks

NanoRacks is part of a team of companies called the Ixion Initiative Team and includes NanoRacks, Space Systems Loral, and the United Launch Alliance (ULA).

Their project includes a feasibility study on the conversion of rocket upper stages into habitats. It is seen as a potentially more affordable and less risky pay than fabricating modules on the ground before sending them to orbit. The goal would be to demonstrate the conversion of a Centaur rocket upper stage that could be attached to the International Space Station.

“Our plan is to dramatically lower the proposed costs for habitats to allow for the largest customer base, both commercial and government,” said Jeffrey Manber, CEO of NanoRacks, in a press release. “With Loral and NanoRacks working together, we have the knowledge base to assure a solid commercial use of tomorrow’s habitats via re-purposed ULA Centaur platforms.”

NanoRacks already does commercial work on the space station. The company has sent and deployed over 130 satellites from the ISS and visiting vehicles.

After proving the concept in LEO, the Ixion Team believes future habitats from this approach could be used to create deep space habitats from any future rocket upper stages including the Space Launch System.

Commercial Investment

The first NextSTEP selections occurred in 2015 and included Bigelow Aerospace, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Orbital ATK, and seven other companies. They were tasked with advancing concept studies and technology development projects in areas of advanced propulsion, habitation and small satellites both for deep space and LEO.

This current round will attempt to use commercial investment that could ultimately lead to an operational deep space habitation capability for missions near the moon, which is expected to serve as the “proving ground” for NASA’s Journey to Mars. It is hoped that those missions will demonstrate human, robotic and spacecraft operations in a true deep space environment, while still being close to Earth.

According to Space News, many of the concepts put forward by the companies could be re-purposed as commercial space stations. At least one company, Bigelow, already has plans to develop stations with or without NASA help. XBASE was announced in April 2016 as a potential addition to the ISS to be utilized by both NASA and other commercial entities.



Derek Richardson has a degree in mass media, with an emphasis in contemporary journalism, from Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. While at Washburn, he was the managing editor of the student run newspaper, the Washburn Review. He also has a website about human spaceflight called Orbital Velocity. You can find him on twitter @TheSpaceWriter.

Reader Comments

Clive Bashford

This is exactly what NASA needs to be doing. SpaceX can probably get us there, but they build rockets, not habitats.

And no mention of artificial gravity, incredible.

Remember when they were going to try to convert the Space Shuttle’s external fuel tank into space habitat modules? It looks like Nanoracks is going to try to start that idea back up. I wonder what the decontamination process would look like when trying to clean up the unused fuel left in the tank. Do you just launch an internal skin separately and inflate it inside of the tank so you don’t have to worry about cleanup?

The Centaur runs on liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen, neither of which are going to leave any sort of “bathtub ring” that has to be scrubbed off. Just open the purge valves and wait awhile.

Hello. Do not forget about the fire……explosion hazard!

I’ve just read this article, in early November. I look forward to reading what has happened since this article was posted (in August).

I don’t think cleaning up unused fuel inside a used rocket upper stage will be a big problem. If the fuels used were liquid oxygen, hydrogen, or methane, then venting the tank will allow those substances to simply boil away into space, leaving nothing behind. I don’t think LEO or cislunar space is quite cold enough for solid oxygen to form, and it’s definitely not cold enough for solid hydrogen. I’m not sure about methane or kerosene, though.

What I wonder is how anybody can attach or install usable airlocks or docking modules to a structure that doesn’t already have them, and wasn’t designed for them.

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