Traveling to distant planets can be tough on space travelers. Spacecraft are constantly bombarded with radiation, debris impact is an ever-present threat, and cramped confines can cause even the most steely-eyed astronaut to question his or her sanity. It’s no surprise that NASA is looking to a number of companies to design and develop ground-based prototypes for the first generation of deep space habitation modules.The companies range from young, post-startups to long established giants in the industry.
Betting on what is called expandable module technology, Bigelow Aerospace has already designed what is sure to be one of the more innovative prototypes. Essentially, it’s an inflatable balloon of sorts that provides more usable space for less mass and launch space. Currently, NASA is testing a smaller prototype called the ‘Bigelow Expanded Activity Module’ – or BEAM – that is docked with the International Space Station (ISS). It was successfully attached and inflated, and will be used as a two-year test for expandable technology. It will see very limited use. According to NASA, its hatch will be closed most of the time, and it will only be accessed to take readings on such things as leak tests, radiation, etc. When its time is up, it will be jettisoned and sent into the atmosphere to burn up.
Bigelow has a head start among the contenders. It has long hoped to use expandable technology for use on the first mission to Mars, and has designed its B330 module for just that purpose. With a usable volume of 330 square meters (hence the name), it is more than three times larger than the Destiny module on the ISS, but weighs in at only 33% more mass. It also has similar radiation and impact protection to Destiny. Many people question the wisdom of putting a sort of balloon into space where a micrometeor strike could “pop” it. However, the skin of the module isn’t thin plastic like a balloon, but rather multiple layers of a variety of materials that provide better ballistic and radiation protection than rigid materials currently in use.
Sierra Nevada Corporation
I have to admit that I was somewhat surprised to see Sierra Nevada Corporation as one of the contenders. Known for its “mini Space Shuttle” Dream Chaser spacecraft, the company doesn’t have a background in developing habitation components. It does, however, have its Shuttle-like launch and reentry vehicle, and has designed an unmanned version, as well as a pressurized cargo pod. SNC plans to use its cargo pod as a base on which to build its prototype.
One company with a long history of designing and operating spacecraft and space space station modules is Boeing. It has been working on a modular habitation module for use in a variety of missions – including as part of a deep space program. Boeing’s plan seems to be to focus on cost and simplicity, relying on proven technologies.
Though it doesn’t have a ground-up design, Lockheed has a novel plan to reuse logistics modules used to send equipment and supplies to the International Space Station. This will reduce both the risk and cost of developing a prototype. Lockheed also has ambitious plans to place a space station in orbit around Mars by the late 2020s.
The Cygnus cargo delivery spacecraft is currently being used to perform resupply missions to the International Space Station. Orbital ATK is under contract to deliver 28,700 kg of cargo over ten missions. The pressurized spacecraft already has many of the interfaces needed for a deep space mission, along with a track record of success. Orbital ATK plans to utilize Cygnus to develop its prototype.
Inclusion of this company, primarily known for CubeSat technology and mission deployment, is one of the more surprising. However, it seems to be teaming up with space behemoth United Launch Alliance (ULA) and Space Systems Loral. Their plan is to use Centaur upper stages used on other launches and refurbish them in space, thus dramatically lowering launch costs. While potentially lower cost and less risky from a launch perspective, there is significantly increased risk in that a project of this scale has never been completely assembled in orbit.