NASA under orders to build a deep-space habitat by 2018Congress has instructed NASA to step up the development of a “habitation module” that can take astronauts on deep space missions. The omnibus spending bill passed by lawmakers earlier this month, which increases the space agency’s funding in 2016 by $1.3 billion, directs NASA to build a “prototype deep space habitation module within the advanced exploration systems program no later than 2018,” Space News reported this week.
A report accompanying the appropriations bill earmarks $55 billion for “habitation augmentation module” development, which would be overseen and paid for by NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems program as part of the $350 billion the agency received for Exploration Research and Development in fiscal 2016.
NASA will have to report to Congress on its progress in developing the deep space habitat within 180 days of the spending bill’s enactment, according to Space News.
For now, agency officials aren’t revealing how and when the habitation module will be built and tested. Earlier this month, NASA International Space Station director Sam Scimemi said he was “not immediately aware of any specific plans” for the funding, Space News reported.
In mid-December, Scimemi did describe plans to begin testing a habitation module connected to a long-haul crew capsule in cislunar space “in the 2020s.” Congress apparently wants NASA to pull in that timeline by several years at least. Scimemi’s description of a “year-long ‘shakedown cruise’ in cislunar space to test the habitation module “by the late 2020s,” per Space News, doesn’t seem to jibe with lawmakers’ demand for results quite a bit sooner than that.
After testing the habitation module between Earth and the moon, the plan is to use it to keep crewmembers comfortable and safe on future long-haul trips to deep space destinations like Mars, which could last more than a year. The first of those missions could be launched in the mid to late 2020s. NASA long-range planning points to 2026 as the target date for a rendezvous with a captured asteroid in lunar orbit, with “longer duration missions” culminating in a trip to Mars to follow.
The crew capsule set to guide deep-space travelers to their destinations is much further along in its development than the habitat. NASA successfully tested its Orion spacecraft last December, blasting the long-haul crew capsule into space atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral, Fla. for a quick, four-hour jaunt in orbit some 3,600 miles above Earth before splashing down in the Pacific. The next big test mission will be an uncrewed flight to the moon in 2018. In September, NASA pushed back Orion’s first crewed flight, also a trip to the moon, by nearly two years to April 2023.
Meanwhile, NASA’s private sector partners in its Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) program are eager to start developing the habitation module. Those partners include Bigelow Aerospace, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Orbital ATK, all under contract to develop habitat designs, as well as Dynetics, Hamilton Sundstrand, and Orbital Technologies, which are tasked with conceptualizing “specific module technologies, such as life support systems,” per Space News.
WASHINGTON – An omnibus spending bill passed by Congress this month directs NASA to accelerate work on a habitation module that could be used for future deep space missions, although how NASA will implement that direction is unclear.
NASA may dream of sending humans to Mars in the coming decades, but the fact remains that nobody’s really sure how we’ll survive the journey or set up camp on the red planet. The Orion spacecraft that will drive astronauts to Mars has a diameter that’s about the length of a pickup truck.