In a bid to help advance the manned flight to Red Planet, the US space agency has selected six US companies to develop ground prototypes and concepts for deep space habitats.
Habitation systems provide a safe place for humans to live as scientists move beyond Earth on the journey to Mars.
Through the public-private partnerships enabled by the Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships-2 (NextSTEP-2), NASA and industry partners will expand commercial development of space in low-Earth orbit while also improving deep space exploration capabilities to support more extensive human spaceflight missions.
“NASA is on an ambitious expansion of human spaceflight, including the Journey to Mars, and we’re utilising the innovation, skill, and knowledge of the both the government and private sectors,” said Jason Crusan, director of NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems, in a statement.
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,” Crusan added.
The selected companies are Bigelow Aerospace, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Orbital ATK, Sierra Nevada Corporation and NanoRacks.
The six partners will have up to approximately 24 months to develop ground prototypes and/or conduct concept studies for deep space habitats.
NASA has estimated the total of contract award amounts to be approximate $65 million.
The ground prototypes will be used for three primary purposes: supporting integrated systems testing, human factors, and operations testing and to help define overall system functionality.
These are important activities as they help define the design standards, common interfaces, and requirements while reducing risks for the final flight systems that will come after this phase.
NASA made the first NextSTEP selections in 2015, which include deep space habitation concept studies that also advance low-Earth orbit commercial capabilities.
Four companies were selected under that solicitation: Bigelow Aerospace LLC, Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Orbital ATK.
This round of NextSTEP selections will catalyse commercial investment in low-Earth orbit and lead to an operational deep space habitation capability in the area of space near the moon which will serve as the proving ground for Mars during the 2020s.